International Schools

Comparing routes to university

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 June, 2009, 12:00am

Hong Kong education has long had its roots in its British heritage, with local exams leading to A-levels modelled on the British equivalent and students in international schools most likely to leave school with a clutch of British A-levels.

This year that will change, with A-levels being replaced by the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE), and the English Schools Foundation (ESF) and several other international schools switching to the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma. Several Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) schools, including St Paul's Co-Educational College and Diocesan Boys' School, plan to offer the IB Diploma.

Yet interest in British A-levels remains strong, and several international schools still offer them. Many DSS schools, including St Paul's Convent School and St Paul's College, recently opted for them as their alternative to the HKDSE, instead of the IB.

Close to 700 candidates are registered to sit British A-levels in Hong Kong with the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority.

There are also at least 2,000 students a year entering A-level courses in Britain's schools and colleges, while others will be choosing this option at international schools around the region, such as Harrow International School in Bangkok and Beijing.

There are pros and cons to each, and which is the best programme depends on the individual student.

The International Baccalaureate Diploma was originally designed by the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate Organisation for international schools. It is offered by more than 2,600 schools worldwide, including a minority of national schools in countries such as Australia, Britain and the United States. In Hong Kong, 14 schools are authorised to teach it, with the number of candidates growing to around 1,000 this year.

The IB has primary, middle years and the diploma programmes. The IB Diploma prides itself on its rigour, combining breadth and depth in academic study, and is generally accepted to be suitable for more academically able students.

The ESF has recognised this by offering alternatives to the full diploma for the less academically inclined.

These involve a combination of single IB certificate courses (similar to single A-levels) and the more vocational BTEC National Diploma.

To gain the full IB Diploma, students must study six subjects, including three at higher level and three at standard. These must include their first language, a second language, maths, a science, and a subject from the humanities. They can also take an arts subject or a second science or humanity for the sixth.

In addition, IB students must study the more philosophical theory of knowledge, produce an extended essay of 4,000 words from their own research, and complete a number of hours of 'Creativity, Action and Service' (CAS). Preparation for the diploma constitutes a complete senior secondary programme.

Students are assessed on a points system, with 45 being the maximum, based on coursework and final exams. Each subject is graded to a maximum of seven, with seven being equivalent to a high grade A at A-levels. The CAS, extended essay and theory of knowledge can earn a student three points.

Students need a total of at least 24 to get the diploma, with three points being the pass for individual subjects.

IB higher and standard level subjects have been compared with AS and A-levels by the British higher education admissions service UCAS' tariff points system, a useful tool for parents to understand how the two match up. Standard level subjects are roughly equivalent to AS-levels, and higher level to A-levels. However, the IB is challenging because of the number of subjects students are required to study, and the mix which means they can't opt out of core subjects such as maths, English and a foreign language.

British A-levels are equally rigorous in subject content and assessment, but more flexible in what students have to study. Like the IB Diploma, they involve two years of study, with a similar range of individual subjects offered but including a wider choice of academic and less academic ones. In the first year, students prepare for AS-levels and will normally take four or five subjects of their choice. In the second, they will study for the A2, usually focusing on their three most important or best subjects. Results from the AS and A2 will make up the final A-level grade. Compared with the new HKDSE and secondary qualifications in North America, A-levels involve more in-depth specialist study.

A-levels are studied and examined in modules, involving course work and examinations. In their grading of A to E, A-levels have been criticised by universities for failing to distinguish the very best students from the good.

From next year's results, a new A* grade will be added to provide that finer distinction and test the top students.

Unlike the IB, A-level students can opt for subjects they like most or are confident of getting higher grades in, though at AS-levels they will be encouraged to include a balance - students intent on taking three sciences at A2 can broaden their study with an arts and language at AS. The advantage of this route is that it may be easier for students to achieve the grades in the three final A-levels forming the basis of a university offer. The disadvantage is that it can be a less rounded education compared with the IB.

However, A-levels should not constitute the whole of a school programme. Students will still normally be required to take part in sports, and good schools will offer a rich range of extra-curricular activities including arts, drama and community service.

Some schools in Britain are also offering the new Cambridge Pre-U Diploma to supplement A-levels.

The Pre-U is similar to the IB but allows students to select a flexible combination of subjects and complete a course on global perspectives and an independent research report.

With A-levels, schools have the freedom to devise the whole programme based on their educational ideals.

IB schools will embrace the philosophy of IB World Schools, which includes aiming for the IB's internationalist ideals through its curriculum content.

Both the IB Diploma and A-levels are well recognised for university entry, in Hong Kong, Britain and other countries. For use from next year, UCAS also gives points for individual IB certificate courses, enabling universities to assess these against other qualifications.

However, it is yet to be seen if individual admissions tutors in the more selective universities will judge an applicant without the full diploma equally with a student who has it.

Students who know what they plan to study at university should look at the entry requirements for both A-levels and IB and factor in which route will give them the more likely chance of meeting those. This is crucial for the most competitive subjects, like medicine.

British universities are most interested in the Higher Level IB results, judging these as equivalent to three A-levels. Taking medicine as an example, university offers may vary between 7-7-7 and 6-6-5 at Higher Level, with 34 to 42 points in the diploma as a whole, according to the UK Med School Guide. At A-level, offers range from A-A-A to A-A-B. Some medical schools specify students offer at least three IB Higher Level or A-level sciences, some two and some just one (with chemistry being the most important).

Universities in Hong Kong, Britain and most western countries like the IB and think it prepares students well for university study.

However, there are preferences within universities and faculties.

According to Dr Geoff Parks, Cambridge's admission tutor, his university likes the IB better than A-levels for students entering law and humanities, is neutral for medicine, and negative for sciences - IB higher level maths not being regarded as demanding a preparation for science and engineering subjects as A-level further maths.

Katherine Forestier is Director of Education Services at the British Council Hong Kong.