A-level parity at last for the IB brigade

Nick Jackson discovers how an international qualification is shooting up the league tables
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As sixth-formers and parents turn their attention to university applications, totting up predicted UCAS points and getting some last-minute charity work in to put on that personal statement, there is one lot who have good reason to feel a little more confident: not the usual smug independent schools but International Baccalaureate students.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) has been knocking around since the Sixties but this year it received a major boost when UCAS for the first time included it in its points system, giving a top result the same points as six and a half As at A level. The result was that four of the top 10 schools in the A level league tables, including the top school, top state school, and the top girls school, teach the IB. This result is particularly impressive bearing in mind that only 87 UK schools offer the qualification out of the 900 included in the tables.

Based in Geneva but with offices around the world, the IB is an increasingly appealing international alternative to A levels. Students learn six core subjects, specialising in three of them, complete a theory of knowledge course, write a 4,000 word essay and do community service.

The league tables coup has been followed up by research which shows that most admissions tutors at universities think the IB is a better preparation for university than A levels. Half of the 52 university admissions officers consulted thought that the IB gave students an advantage over A level graduates. None thought it a disadvantage.

The research was conducted by ACS International Schools, a group of three schools based in Hillingdon, London, and in Cobham and Egham in Surrey, all of which offer the IB Diploma. "The IB is very well received by universities," says Malcolm Kay, superintendent of ACS International Schools.

Kay believes this is because, with English and maths compulsory, IB graduates do not have the problems with literacy and numeracy that A level graduates can have. The extended essay also gives students experience of independent research.

The IB is no longer just popular with international schools like the ACS but with established British schools, including one of England's oldest, Sevenoaks School. A nine-year transition to the IB paid off this year with Sevenoaks leading the league tables, its 216 graduates getting an average UCAS score of 587.9, equivalent to four As and a B at A level.

"We could see the writing on the wall for A levels," says Katy Ricks, head of Sevenoaks. The IB, she adds, is free from government fiddling and grade inflation. Ricks believes that the IB is not just better academically. Students must study a foreign language, the curriculum makes them look beyond Europe, and they must do some community service, often with an international feel, in order to graduate. "It creates a sense of public spirit and global responsibility," says Ricks.

Teachers also argue that with no public exams in Year 12 and a less prescribed syllabus there is more scope to explore topics. And with questions less obvious, more thematic, and open-ended, there is not the temptation that there is in A levels to churn out rote answers to guessed questions.

"At A level you end up teaching towards questions. In the IB you teach topics," says Jason Morrow, who teaches history at North London Collegiate School, the top girls' school in the league tables, which offers the IB and A levels.

And the more varied subjects are bound together by Theory of Knowledge, which looks at way of understanding evidence and proof, and applies to arts and sciences.

Laura Lee-Rogers, 17, is one of Morrow's students. She relishes the greater breadth of the IB, and the chance to combine biology, chemistry, English, history, French, and maths. But more than that she believes the curriculum and the way it is structured makes her more involved than friends doing A levels. "You're not just sitting there listening, you feel like you're engaging with your subjects more," she says. "And with the extended essay you can go and explore independently."