A-Levels or IBDP for University?

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By Steve Allen, Head Master, LEH Foshan International School

I am often asked which exam programme best prepares students for universities around the world. This often comes down to the debate between A-Levels or the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP). Having worked with both programmes, I am in a relatively privileged position to comment on the relative pros and cons. The good news is that both A-Levels and the IBDP offer excellent student learning, and are both widely recognised by universities and colleges around the world.


Pros and Cons of A-Levels and IB Diploma Programme

In simple terms, A-Levels allow you to specialise in subjects that you prefer, and want to explore in more depth, while the IBDP requires breadth of study. The IBDP is very full and requires students to be highly organised: conversely A-Levels provide more time for students to explore outside the curriculum and this requires a different level of self-discipline and initiative.

Students interested in medicine, engineering or pure science will see A-Levels as a distinct advantage: they can focus exclusively on mathematics and the sciences. Equally creative students, interested in music, drama and art, are not forced to continue with maths or sciences.

Students, however, who are gifted linguists or who enjoy all subjects will find the IBDP to their taste. With the rise of US style ‘liberal arts’ degrees, the IBDP can provide a better grounding across a range of valuable subject areas.

Why has LEH-Foshan chosen the A-Level route?

Based on over a decade teaching in Asia, I believe the A-Level programme provides the best mix of challenge and choice. Students can study a broad and balanced programme or can choose to specialise in the areas where they have real strengths and passions; it allows space and time for students to demonstrate their own interest and initiative. 

An LEH education is so much more than examination and university preparation however. Through our holistic approach and broad enrichment programme, we ensure our students are ‘world ready’ – prepared for the challenges of university, to thrive there and in life beyond study. We ensure our students are prepared for real life and to be socially minded, understanding their responsibility to society. 

At LEH Foshan we offer A-Levels, but I am always available to talk to parents in more detail about the advantages of both programmes.

Similarities & Differences:

Both A-Levels & IBDP ...

  • Two-year programmes
  • Suited to students 16 to 18 years old
  • Accepted by leading Universities around the world
  • Encourage analytical thinking and problem solving
  • Equally challenging: an IBDP Higher Level course is the same standard as an A-Level course
  • Follow a defined syllabus with a mixture of direct teaching, individual study, project work and exams.


  • 3 to 5 subjects, with freedom of choice
  • Grades range from A* to E
  • Option of the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) –  an independent project equivalent to half an A-Level and the IB Extended Essay
  • Option of Duke of Edinburgh International Programme
  • Time available for extended personal study, interests and activities
  • Good for students who already have strong interest in certain subjects, and want to study in depth.

IB Diploma Programme:

6 subjects: 3 at Standard Level (SL) and 3 at Higher Level (HL)

Subjects are chosen from six areas:

  1. Studies in language and literature (English)
  2. Language acquisition (another foreign language)
  3. Individuals and societies (such as history geography, psychology)
  4. Sciences (such as physics, chemistry, biology, environmental)
  5. Mathematics
  6. The arts (such as drama, music, art, film)

Some schools allow students to take six subjects from five of the subject areas, allowing students to choose, for example, two sciences.

In addition, students must take 3 “Core” activities:

  1. Theory of Knowledge – reflecting on the nature of knowledge
  2. Extended Essay – a 4,000-word independent research essay
  3. Creativity, Action & Service (CAS) – complete projects in these three areas.

Maximum grade: 45 points = (6 subjects x 7 points) + 3 points for “core” activities.

Complicated rules for passing the full diploma, which is required by many universities.

Good for students who want a range of subjects, and are well-organised in managing multiple projects and deadlines.

Encourages breadth over depth and limits choice: not possible to study all 3 sciences or more than one creative subject. 


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