The big question facing sixth formers used to be between the arts and science. Now, it seems, ambitious students with an eye on top university places have to choose between breadth and specialism: to IB or not to IB.
The International Baccalaureate has won many converts in the independent and state sector in recent years. Advocates say that the IB is favoured by admissions tutors and is a better preparation for university life and beyond, but critics argue that the IB can slash students' results by forcing them to take exams in weaker subjects.
Certainly it is a good bet for bright students looking to boost UCAS points. Last year, UCAS rated a top result on the IB as equivalent to six and-a-half As at A-level, launching IB schools like the grant-maintained Hockerill Anglo European College to the top of the league tables.
One school that seems to reaping the rewards of the IB is King's College School in Wimbledon, which this month made the course compulsory for all students. In August, the school found itself at the very top of the tables with students achieving nearly 530 UCAS points on average. Last year one-fifth of boys were offered a place at Oxbridge.
"We've had great success with the IB boys," says Tony Evans, headmaster at the school. "Our verdict is they've done better because the IB stretches them." International Baccalaureate 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.
Evans believes that the qualification can be a boost. Oxbridge interviews often focus on two pieces of work, which the student is then asked to discuss. Far better to have a 4,000 word dissertation on which you might have spent months to consider than a 1,000 word essay written over a weekend.
And theory of knowledge, which looks at ways of understanding evidence and proof in the arts and sciences, trains pupils in the kind of lateral thinking admissions tutors rate, says Evans.
This month Professor Peter Davies of Staffordshire University attacked the IB's reputation for opening doors, claiming that the breadth of the IB can be a problem for some students, and can penalise specialists
But advocates of IB claim that choosing your specialism at 16 is absurd for many. "At 16 we're not sure students have discovered all their skills and talents," says Malcolm Kay, superintendent of ACS International Schools in Surrey, which have taught the IB for 30 years.
And Kay argues that the IB also prepares you better to excel at university. A poll of 56 admissions tutors, commissioned by the ACS International Schools, found they felt the IB was a better preparation for university. Tony Evans agrees: an unusually large number of his school's IB graduates have gone on to get firsts, he says.
Specialising too soon can prove a serious mistake. "Choosing the IB has given me the freedom to explore different subject areas in more depth," says Gabrielle Allen, 17, an IB student at ACS Egham International School. "If I'd taken A-levels I'd never have chosen to continue with Chemistry."
Despite its merits the International Baccalaureate still has something of an elitist reputation. That looks set to change with government plans to make the IB available in every local authority in England by 2010.
Alton College, a non-selective sixth form college in Hampshire, set up the IB in 2005. While the first students to take it up were the brightest, head Jane Machell says it is now attracting students from across the board.
"The IB has been misrepresented or misunderstood as something just for high achievers," says Machell. "I think that's a myth."
Another concern schools have is cost. Charges for exam entry and teacher training are high. With the government's pledge has come government money, but even without funding schools can make the IB pay.
Alton College has 80 students starting the course this year, enough to allow them to break even, says Machell. Parents are now moving into the college's catchment area so their children can take the course.Reuse content