Singapore-Cambridge A Levels or the IB Diploma programme?

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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea?!

There are about 12,000 students taking the A Levels in Singapore every year and 2,500 taking IB examinations. The numbers for IB have increased significantly over the years as local reputable schools like ACS and SJI have jumped onto the bandwagon. There are also specialty schools like the Singapore Sports School and School of The Arts that are also on the IB wagon.

The IB Diploma programme offers a curriculum that is made up of 6 subject groups – Studies in Language and Literature, Language Acquisition, Individuals and Societies, Sciences, Mathematics, and the Arts.

Students usually study 3 subjects at a Higher Level (HL) and 3 at Standard Level (SL). 1 of them must involve a “foreign” language.

In addition, there are other compulsory components such as The Theory of Knowledge (TOK); Community, Action, Service (CAS) and the much feared Extended Essay (EE), which is a 4,000-word long research paper related to one of the subjects the student is taking.

In contrast, for the Singapore-Cambridge A Levels, students take a minimum of 4 Content-based subjects, of which 1 must be a contrasting subject. For example, Arts stream student taking Chemistry and Science stream student taking Economics (smart choice!). In addition, mother tongue language and General Paper are the other examinable subjects.

The 4 content-based subjects must be either taken at H2 level or 3 at H2 and one at H1 level. H2 is the A Level equivalent of IB’s HL and H1 is the equivalent of IB’s SL. As mother tongue language and General Paper is done at H1 levels, one can see the similarity of doing 3 H2s and 3 H1s with IB’s 3 HLs and 3 SLs. (So who copy who ah?)

While IB has TOK, the A Levels have Project Work (PW) and they are quite similar in terms of trying to get students to apply thinking and knowledge to real-life situations. And what a coincidence that both require Oral Presentation and written submissions!

However, while PW definitely requires group work, which means one must learn to work with others, TOK can be entirely individual work, although presentations may be done as a group. (If you don’t like working with others, then you better take the A Levels and learn to like PW! In life, we will have many PWs to cope with!)

The A Level student is done with PW by the end of J1 whereas the IB student usually completes TOK around mid of the 2nd year. This could mean more time to complete the work but it could also mean a frantic “work-jam” as outstanding Internal Assessments (IAs), EE, are all due around May-Jul period. Not to mention the Prelim Exams are averagely held in Aug (some schools like ACS International hold it earlier and some like ACS Independent later…Yup, weird right?).

So what are the major differences?

From my experience, for each content subject, IB covers a broader range of topics and concepts. The Singapore-Cambridge A Levels does a narrower range. However, the Singapore-Cambridge A Levels require greater depth of analysis and more higher-order thinking. The A Level examinations tend to be much harder.

This however does not necessarily make the IB route easier as for every subject, students have to do a coursework component known as Internal Assessments (IAs). There are usually about 3-4 per subject and they make up a very significant 20-30% of the final IB grade. They are marked by the school teachers and will be checked and moderated by IB examiners. This is in contrast with the A Levels, whereby student is entirely graded based on performance at the final hurdle itself.

And then there is the rather exhausting Extended Essay – a 14-month journey of conducting research within a chosen topic and crafting a 4000-word long essay, which should usually includes some data collection. (Wow…I did not do anything like this till my Honours year in the University).

If one scores A for both TOK and EE, 3 extra grade points will be awarded. This is how the IB perfect score comes about: 6 subjects x 7 points (highest score) = 42  and + 3 extra = 45 perfect score!

We have not even touched on IB’s CAS…which requires a minimum of 150 hours over 2 years with students taking part in a range of activities and projects such as fundraising.

In short, IB students have to work hard throughout the 2 years whereas A Level students may slack off throughout and hopefully “wake up” in time for the A Levels. (But, prospective A-levellers, do note that this is actually not advisable as the A Levels is a very academically demanding curriculum. Without solid knowledge and understanding built over the 2 years, most usually do not do well. This is also why students who start tuition early tend to cope much better as several students of mine have attested in their testimonies about the economics tuition programme.)

Students who are more exam-savvy and perhaps more academically driven may cope better with the A Levels. Students who are more savvy at time management, multi-tasking over the 2 years and are more adept at independent learning and research could thrive better in the IB route. A lot more essay writing is also required for the IB due to the IAs and EE.

Personally, I went through the Singapore-Cambridge A Levels. Slacked for almost 2 years and pulled up my socks after shocking Prelim results. With flying colours, I crossed the A Level hurdle but that was during my time…decades ago…Today, the A Levels are much much harder. Last minute cramming of content and regurgitation worked for me but I would have been a major flop today. That’s the honest truth. I am glad I was born many decades earlier. Seriously.

If I had the choice of A Levels vs IB, I think a wiser me might choose the IB for a more “holistic” experience and training.

Do either confer greater advantage for university admission? No, I don’t think so. I think the universities regard them as both equally rigorous qualifications. I have witnessed many of my IB students entering Law, Medicine, Computer Science, top Economics programmes etc. Same for my A Level students.

Let’s take a deeper dive and compare the IB Economics and the A Level Economics! Or find out more about IB and JC economics tuition today!

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