A Levels: Where will they take you?

As a qualification that prepares international students for university and a future career, A Levels have much to recommend them. Jon Wingfield, deputy head (Whole College) at Brighton College Bangkok, explains.

Brighton College Bangkok

Brighton College Bangkok

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 Having worked in a school that offered both International Baccalaureate (IB) and A Level courses for sixth-form pupils, I’ve found that it can be frustrating to listen to the perennial debate about the two – a debate that must simply serve to confuse parents trying to make the right choices for their children.The truth is that both qualifications are universally recognised, respected and – providing you are successful – equally likely to get you into the university of your choice, irrespective of which subject you may be applying to study and in which country you are looking to study it.By way of example, I spoke to a parent recently who was not alone in being convinced that his daughter stood a much better chance of getting into a university in the US if she did the IB, and that A Levels only really prepared pupils for universities in the UK. However, like many other UK independent schools, Brighton College is now an international family of schools, all offering A Levels to internationally minded pupils who are likely to find themselves studying, working and living in a variety of countries throughout the globe.

Opening doors to opportunity

There are a number of good reasons why A Levels open doors; apart from the fact that they are academically challenging and so have almost universal credibility, the curriculum is based on the development of key transferable skills. Pupils are recognised for their ability to use what they know, think critically and solve problems, rather than simply for how much they know.Universities and employers will tell you that their challenge is not to find school leavers who know everything already, but to find those who are intellectually curious and can adapt to whatever situation they find themselves in. As a consequence, you do not have to have studied law at A Level to read law at university, and pupils who opt for A Levels in mathematics, further mathematics, physics and economics do not restrict themselves to courses and careers in those areas, and certainly not just to the UK.School search and education advice - connect with our in-country expertsA key reason why the debate seems to elude a common consensus is that the strengths of these particular programmes also tend to be their weaknesses. For example, one of the great strengths of the IB is that it maintains the breadth of subjects taken and does not allow pupils to ignore their weaker areas. However, this also means that there are subject combinations that are simply not available. For example, you would not be able to take all three sciences, and you could only take two if you were happy not to take an arts subject.If you had a particular passion for the performing arts you would not be able to take both music and theatre and one could make a similar argument for the humanities. These subject combinations may not make it easier to get to university than the IB, but what they do is give a pupil with a particular skill set or passion the opportunity to really explore and excel in subjects that inspire them – and there a few stronger educational arguments than that.An A Level curriculum also gives pupils the space in their timetables to undertake research and study because they want to, not because they have to. It is true that a good all-rounder will excel in the IB programme, but these pupils are equally likely to thrive in A Levels. What is perhaps more relevant is that not all pupils who would thrive at A Level will do so in the IB. Whereas A levels provide the flexibility to mould a curriculum to the strengths and interests of the pupil, pupils taking the IB may need to continue with subjects they do not enjoy or are perhaps weaker in, and drop subjects they may perceive as strengths.

Preparing for life beyond school

The majority of schools that choose to offer A Levels instead of the IB do not necessarily do so because they feel the IB is in any way inferior, but would probably argue that, whereas A Levels have the same global status as the IB, they suit a greater range of pupils.That said, one of the strongest selling points of the IB is the Core, and quite rightly so; there is real educational merit in the Theory of Knowledge, undertaking an Extended Essay, and maintaining a portfolio of evidence of co-curricular participation. However, what sometimes gets lost is that pupils in a good A Level school will be doing similar things alongside the curriculum to prepare them for life beyond school.For example, there is the Extended Project Qualification. This is like the IB Extended Essay, but pupils can present their work as creatively as they are inspired to, from a video documentary to a series of radio broadcasts, or even a traditional essay, often producing work at an undergraduate level.Top schools will also offer non-examined enrichment courses to their sixth-form pupils, including theory of knowledge, to ensure that their preparation for life beyond school is balanced. These, in addition to an exceptional co-curricular programme, will enhance their education in a personal way, without the constraints of having to approach them in a particular way.Choosing the right curriculum for your children is a very personal thing; do they have strength in breadth or would they benefit from greater specialisation? However, do also remember that it is the whole school experience, not just the qualification they end up with, that prepares pupils for life at university and beyond.
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