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Eye on the prize: choosing the right pre-university diploma

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Do kids need an IB Diploma or four A levels to get into a good university overseas? Director of ITS Education Asia (School Advisory Services) Anne Murphy suggests not.

There’s no doubt that the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma and Advanced level (A level) qualifications are the most popular pre-university programmes with parents looking to send their kids to university in Hong Kong and overseas, not least because they are taught and recognised internationally.

Overall, the chief value in the IB Diploma is its breadth; it benefits gifted students and those who are unsure where their academic future lies. Students, including those at Discovery College, select options (specialising in three) from six required subject groups: first and second languages, humanities, sciences, maths and the arts. They also write an extended essay of 4,000 words, undertake a Theory of Knowledge course, and complete 150 hours of supervised Creativity, Action, Service (CAS) time. IB’s sheer range makes it appealing to certain university systems.

Given its more diverse range of topics, the IB Diploma programme is often seen as providing a more well-rounded education. This makes the course particularly suited to students who are interested in a broad range of fields, but perhaps haven’t chosen what they would like to study at degree level yet.

A levels for single-minded students

A levels are subject-based qualifications that also lead to university. A student normally studies three or more A levels over two years. The A level qualification is made up of two components: AS level and A2 level. Students need to study and complete their AS levels before they take A levels. After that, the two scores are averaged (50/50) to produce an overall A level score. Students usually complete
their AS level in their second to last year of secondary school and their A2 level in their last year.

The A level system allows students with clear academic goals (or students who are not ‘all-rounders’) to specialise early, since they typically take just three or four modules. It also enables students to retake individual units if a prior grade achieved was not satisfactory. Parents should note that Discovery Bay International School now provides a post-16 route for students wishing to gain A level qualifications.

It’s important to accept that choosing between three or four A level subjects is a big decision for a teenager. The choice depends on what will work best for each student and there are a number of factors to reflect upon either way. One of the most obvious advantages of taking three A level subjects in Year 12 is the reduced workload that students will face in comparison to their peers taking four. This will benefit students who do not have a lot of time. Students with extensive extracurricular commitments or those who would like to work towards an Extended Projects Qualification (EPQ) might find it easier to balance their commitments against three subjects as opposed to four.

Alternative qualifications

But the IB Diploma and A levels are not the only options. Students who enjoy and do best at more practical styles of learning have the opportunity to take the International Applied Diploma (IAD), currently offered at Island School, King George V School and Sha Tin College. Students typically select three subjects accredited by the UK’s Business Technological Education Council (BTEC). There is also the opportunity to take one or two BTEC courses and add IB subjects for a broader learning experience.

BTEC courses are practical with a vocational context; they are equivalent to A levels and are widely accepted university entrance qualifications in the UK.

In 2012, West Island School was the first pilot school to offer the International Diploma Career Certificate (IDCC), which includes BTEC qualifications combined with the IB Career-related Certificate (IBCC). Students need to qualify in a second language, as well as one other IB subject alongside their BTEC courses, and do an Extended Project to achieve this qualification.

In addition, many of Hong Kong’s private international schools offer home-grown curricula as well as the IB Diploma. For instance, at the Australian International School, students can take either the Australian Higher School Certificate or the IB Diploma. As of 2019, Stamford American School students will study for both the American Diploma and the IB Diploma.

At YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College, young students follow an integrated curriculum, which combines the content of both the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) and the IGCSE. Post 16, students can choose to continue with the HKDSE curriculum or apply to study A levels.

While people argue about which path universities look more favourably upon, the reality is that admissions departments consider students based on their individual merit and the suitability of their preparation for their chosen pathway. Importantly, students need to make sure that university entrance isn’t their only motivation. Learning should be about the enjoyment kids get out of life, the values they are given to anchor to and the meaningful existence created from that.


Contact Anne Murphy, director of ITS Education Asia (School Advisory Services) at [email protected], or visit itseducation.asia.


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