Both the IB and A-levels are school programmes for students who wish to be well-prepared to study in the UK. They are both broadly acceptable for entry to British Universities who are in fact free to choose their own students (as opposed to other countries where their ministry of education sets the rules). The two qualifications are different in many ways. A-levels are the national English high school qualification whereas the IB is an international qualification that has no "country of origin". Because the IB is international it allows many countries, like Greece, to use it as an alternative to their national school qualification without losing face. The IB requires students to take six subjects over two years and is quite restrictive as regards the choice of subjects. A-levels students usually take three subjects and they are free to take any subjects they like over as long a period as they like. The IB is strictly a school-based programme. This means you need to belong to a school to take it. A-levels are different. They are essentially final exams which can be taken independently of school very much like English language tests. The IB is meant to have a broader international acceptance than A-levels but, in practice, most students doing the IB in Greece aim to study in the UK. On the other hand many countries accept the A-levels for admission to their universities. Nonetheless we will limit this comparison to students aiming to study in the UK.
So which qualification is preferred in the UK?
The A-level is preferred in the UK simply because it is the "home" qualification that everyone knows: students, teachers and admissions officers at universities. Some argue that the IB is up and coming but bear in mind that, in the UK, the proportion of students doing the IB in 2014 was much less than 1% of the total (4800 students out of a total of about 700,000). This does not make the IB an inferior qualification! It is a good qualification which is acceptable by UK universities but it is not the preferred qualification.
Then why do universities also mention the IB in their entry requirements?
University web-sites mention a number of different qualifications including Scottish Highers, Irish Baccalaureate and more. Nonetheless when you visit the admissions requirements page of a British university you will see A-levels mentioned first because, expectedly, this is what most people who read their web sites offer! Of course the IB is also mentioned because it is one of the acceptable qualifications.
Which one is harder to complete?
The IB is considerably harder than A-levels. In the IB, students must study six subjects plus extras whereas with A-levels students study three subjects. With so much workload, it is no surprise that many students taking the IB end up with relatively low grades (24-30 points). About 10-15% of Greek students taking the IB fail to reach 24 points so they end up without the diploma! A-levels are equally hard on a per subject comparison but you only need do three A-levels and you can do them flexibly which means you can complete one A-level in your first year and if your exam result is not good enough you can re-sit the exam next year along the other subjects that you may be taking in the second year.
Does this make the IB a less attractive qualification?
Not necessarily. If you are a top student you will probably do well enough in the IB to make no difference. If you are simply good or average then your will be disadvantaged by taking the IB. As guidance a student taking 30 points on the IB can easily achieve three A-levels with grades ABB. The former does not look good (30/45) whereas the latter looks much better (ABB/A*A*A*) and secures admission to more universities in the UK. Of course is you are a top student there is nothing stopping you from taking 4 or 5 or even 6 subjects and score six A*. However the top universities will not ask you to take six subjects – they will be happy if you have three. For example, A*A*A is the highest practical offer to be made by Cambridge, Oxford or Imperial College. The same universities will ask over 40 points in the IB which practically means mostly 7s in six (rather than three) subjects.
UCAS Tariff points (new 2017 tariff points)
The IB is penalised by university admissions. Here is an example: the admission requirement for Mechanical Engineering or Architecture at Bath University is 36 IB points (which is 280 UCAS tariff points) or A*AA in A-levels (which is 152 tariff points). Ironically, Bath University (indirectly) admits that it is asking for much more to accept a student via the IB than via A-levels. This is true for almost all UK universities. Their IB offer is much higher in tariff points than the A-level offer. Tariff points is a "convertor" of qualifications into a common currency that UCAS adopts to make sense of the hundreds of qualifications around the world.
Why do Greek schools offer the IB ?
They cannot do otherwise. The Greek ministry of education will not allow them to offer A-levels or any other country specific qualification. So they have to offer the IB if they want something alternative to the apolitirion. Expectedly, as more and more students decide to study in the UK, the IB has grown more popular among Greek private schools. This is not because it is the best programme but because it is the ONLY programme they can offer other than the General Lykeio.
Comparing the curriculum of the two programmes
The IB is not as flexible as A-levels. It maintains the philosophy that students must do a variety of subjects to broaden their general as well as specialist knowledge. For example, in the IB you cannot avoid studying Literature or a Language and everyone must take Mathematics (though there are harder and lighter versions) and at least a science subject. This is a great idea provided you are not worried about your final grade. The fact is that people are concerned about their final grades because the do the IB to proceed to university. If you do A-levels you can choose to study the subjects that you like or those that are required for your subject at university. This allows, for example, medical candidates to take Chemistry, Biology and Physics A-level if they prefer (which is impossible in the IB !) There are some advantages with the IB. The IB incorporates project work - extended essay and more - that helps students build research skills. If students do this project on their own (some don't) it is a good preparation for independent study at university.
What is the main advantage of A-levels?
With A-levels you are more likely to enter a better university and be perfectly prepared for your degree. Also you can study for your A-levels while also completing Greek Lykeion (without panhellenic exams). This way you can secure both the Apolitirio and your admission to university in the UK. Finally, A-levels are better examinations than the IB. For a single A-level subject students may sit as many as six examination papers. This ensures that grades are fairer. By sitting formal examinations twice a year from the first year of your study you have many opportunities to put things right if something goes wrong.
Doing A-levels in Greece
There are a number of centres that teach A-levels in Greece. In fact A-levels are so flexible that you can do them without ever going to class although this is not practically possible for the vast majority of students. Usually students do their A-levels at dedicated teaching centre (such as Foundation College or Doukas) or at a school as a school programme (taken at one of the foreign schools that offer it in Athens such as St Lawrence or Byron). You can do them along the 2nd year and/or 3rd year of Lykeion. You can do them after you complete Lykeion or in the summer or whenever you like. Why are A-levels so flexible? A-levels are essentially exams which you can take independently of school.
What about costs?
The IB, being a private school programme in Greece is rather expensive and students should budget a minimum of 20.000 euro for the two years of the IB at any Greek school. If you did A-levels at a private school such as St Lawrence or Byron the cost would be comparable to that of the IB but the advantage of the A-levels is that being exams you don't have to do them at a school! You can study on your own and sit the exams which means zero tuition fees. Or you can study at frontistirio-type institutions such as Foundation College or Doukas where the total (one or two year) cost would not exceed 10,000 euro for three A-level subjects. This makes A-levels a lot less expensive. Remember that you cannot do the IB if you are not registered at an IB school.
If you are a top student (among the top 5%– this means the best in a class of 20) then it doesn’t matter which qualification you choose because you will do well in either. If you are anyone else you are better off with A-levels. If you have a limited budget, you are much better off with A-levels. If you want flexibility such as when you study what you study and how often you take the exams then again you are much better off with A-levels. If you aim to study in the UK again you are better off with A-levels. If you are a student at a private Greek school that offers the IB and you want to stay in your current school and find classmates you know in next year’s class then you are better off with the IB.
"Teaching at Foundation College is amazing. They have a program, and it is the same as in England, so it will make your academic life easier when you are at university. I can definitely recommend Lancaster University to study Law and Foundation College to prepare yourselves."
Law, Lancaster University