Has UCAS got it right?

With the IB expanding at a rate of knots both in the UK and abroad, the one question trepidatious parents ask before launching their children (and themselves) head-first into the programme is – will it be worth it? Few in the UK would argue that the IB requires more hours of input in comparison with the competing A-levels, but surely it is all worth the slog if universities recognise the effort. Isn’t it?

Universities worldwide require a way of standardising results obtained in different programmes, and UCAS constantly revises the manner in which it allocates marks for results from different examination boards. So, how do A-levels and the IB stack up?
Some points of comparison between the two programmes might be: –

• AS-levels vs. internal IB mocks
• % of marks awarded for internal assessment
• Does the programme produce the ‘all-rounder’?
• Extra-curricular and the role of CAS
• Enforced subjects – are Maths and English not core competencies that all students should have to take?
• 2 vs. 3 sciences

The above offer teachers, parents and students an opportunity to analyse which system is better for them when considering their chosen university and career path. Perhaps a more empirical system can be adopted, by looking at the numbers. For example:

• What is the percentage of top marks obtained?
• Percentage of failures?
• Percentage offered places at university?
• How many different results are possible?

Between 50-100 students globally obtain 45 points in the IBDP, equivalent to 0.2% of those taking the programme. In 2009, 22% of students taking A-levels obtained at least 3 A’s. On a subject-by-subject basis, 30% were obtaining the A-grade at A-level for Maths, whilst only 7% were obtaining a 7 at Higher Level Maths. Moreover, 20% of IB diploma programme takers ‘failed’ the course – this in comparison with 4% of A-level takers. Have UCAS taken all of this into consideration?

I am not against the A-level system. There are flaws – namely that there are various bodies offering the courses (OCR, Edexcel, AQA) which presents the issue of grade inflation. However, the A-level course does have a broad range of benefits. A key example is for prospective medical students. Whilst the IB only allows a student to undertake two sciences, there is no limit in A-levels. Most universities state in their prospectuses that two sciences is sufficient, particularly if the student is taking Maths as well, but are they simply taking a political stance?

So, it seems UCAS have a serious job on their hands – how do they reward the efforts of a student undertaking 6 subjects, TOK, Extended Essay and CAS? Do the numbers reflect the hours put in?

A 7 in a HL subject is awarded 130 UCAS points, and a 6 is given 110. This compares with 140 for an A* and 120 for an A. So, UCAS is suggesting that a Higher Level subject is roughly equivalent to a full A-level. How about the standard levels? A 7 at SL is awarded 70 points and a 6 is given 59. This is only slightly more than the marks awarded for an A(60) and B (50) at AS-level. I’m not sure I’d agree with the latter set of numbers. But the IB has a trick up its sleeve – the ‘bonus points’.
When EE & TOK are considered, a total score of 45 points results in a whopping 720 points – roughly equivalent to 3 A*’s and 3A’s at A-level. Looking more towards the mean score, a 35 on the IB is worth 501 points – this equates to 2 A’s, 2 B’s and a C at AS-level.

In my days at Oxford and through running Elite IB, I have never come across anyone who achieved 6 A’s or better at A-level. However, I do have a few friends who achieved the elusive 45. It would appear that UCAS view the IB diploma programme very highly, and reward it as such. It is a slog, but the more you can play the system and use it to your advantage, the easier it becomes. Target your points from the beginning and set your goals early, and maybe you too can type 45 into your facebook status one joyous July day in the not too distant future.