The IB is the ideal of pre-university education for many educators. Who couldpossibly argue with its mission; the breadth and depth of its subject offerings; its introduction to research, philosophy and community service?
A Levels per se advertise few of these virtues and are less ambitious and prescriptive in their outlook. Allowing students to select four subjects (reducing typically to three in the second year) from a choice of over 30,A Levels offer students the freedom not just to choose the subjects thatappeal but crucially to avoid the subjects that repel. As the great majority of teenagers are quite fussy, there is rarely much agonizing about restricting their choices to only four subjects. The IB insists on six subjects (twocompulsory) plus compulsory theory of knowledge, an extended essay and community service – all very laudable but redolent of the vows of a religious order. A Levels to a fault permit unrestricted choice (notwithstanding the subjects required by medicine and a few other university degrees). A Levels are often criticised for their burden of examinations but to me they seem a paragon of creativity in comparison to the IB. Both courses are intellectually demanding, but A Levels give students a bit more time in which to pursuemusic, sport, riding or whatever else takes their fancy. The important issue here is that these extracurricular activities are not examined. Why should they be? If a student has an exceptional breadth of interests, a well-resourced programme of extracurricular activities (among other possibilities)will nicely accommodate them.
A Levels are a unique world-beating product that are undersold, under-promoted and undervalued. They are especially attractive to international students because they represent an escape from the prison of educational systems that insist on twelve or more subjects prior to university. They allow students to focus on subjects that might inspire passion and, although often a political football and most certainly far from perfect, they respond to changing circumstances and are an interesting artefact of our culture. Let us praise a national treasure.