The International Baccalaureate (IB) popularity is beyond doubt. Flexible selection of subjects, well-thought-out curriculum, standard of teaching stuff, recognition of top universities, and adoption by leading private schools etc, all add to confidence in this qualification.

ESF schools switched from GCE A Level to IB in 2004, as part of the effort to move away from UK system to a more “international” system. Most international schools offer IB Diploma, the level before university education, with a few exceptions of British international schools still staying with GCE A Level. Some leading boarding schools in UK are offering both GCE A Level and IB, to cater for the different needs of students.

So what are the key differences between IB vs GCE A Level? The key lies in early specialization (GCE A Level), and emphasis on essay type of assessment (IB).

In the traditional UK education system, students are expected to specialize after Year 9 (at the age of 14), to choose between arts and science streams, broadly speaking as more schools are flexible today, to take the O-Level (IGCSE, and historically HKCEE). Naturally, the O-Level education forms the basics of A-Level. Due to early specialization, it is generally accepted that the GCE A-Level syllabus is one of the highest standards. It is not uncommon for GCE A-Level students to find some courses in the first year of university programs at similar levels.

Some educators believe it may be a bit too early for specialization at the age of 15, and there is demand from students to keep options open. Hence the market demand for a more flexible and broader curriculum. Moreover, instead of one-off examination (very typical UK system), there is a case for continuous assessment, essay/project type of assessment, and involvement outside classroom. This is where the IB system differentiates itself – extended essay (4000 words), Theory of Knowledge (1600 words) and CAS hours (Creative, Activity and Service, 50 hours each).

So which system is better? The answer is it depends on the aspirations of students. If the student identifies his/her particular interests at an early stage, GCE A-Level would be a good choice. However, for those with broader interests, IB will give them a better taste of a range of subjects, before diving into a particular one at university.