The British Sixth Form Curriculum debate rages on – A Levels, Pre-U or the IB?


The variety of sixth form courses available in UK schools is a prime example of how all roads lead to Rome – students can take different paths to enter higher education depending on their own specific ambitions, learning styles and skill set.

The A-levels have recently undergone a major reform which sees it revert to a course of two years with an exam at the end.  Despite it being the most traditional form of exam, it does provide an opportunity for candidates to express real subject enthusiasm.  Students typically study three or four academic subjects, and may then choose additional courses such as Critical Thinking or an Extended Project Qualification.  A Levels are widely and internationally recognised as a pre-university diploma with rigour and depth, particularly in Maths and Further Maths.

The Pre-U diploma was introduced in 2010 by the Cambridge International Examinations board in response to perceived weaknesses in the AS and A level courses prior to their reform.  Compared to the A Level, pupils studying a Pre-U diploma offers the opportunity to study complex subjects in much greater depth. The focus is on delving into the specific subject beyond the boundaries of a fixed exam format.  Instead of preparing for the final exam by studying the specific formats, students are expected to grow their personal opinions through their own individual research, which forms part of the grading criteria.  The Pre-U is graded more precisely than the A Level, with the highest Distinction grade split into D1, D2 and D3.  Universities recognise the stringent demands of a Pre-U diploma and place a top grade in extremely high regard.

In contrast, the IB diploma requires students to undertake the wide range of 6 subjects: maths, a native language, a modern foreign language, a humanities subject, a science, and an art subject. For a student who has not narrowed down one desired field of study in higher education, the IB diploma does undoubtedly maintain a breadth of study that may leave open more options in te process of university applications. The depth and breadth of the diploma is unrivalled, and some would argue offers better differentiation in scores that is valued by certain universities trying to sieve out the cream of the crop from the large pool of candidates every year.

It is easy to see that each curriculum has its pros and cons ,no one system better than the other.  The more crucial question is which would be most suitable for your child.  Ask your child what their learning style is.  What are their ultimate goals in higher education?  By recognising your child’s skill set and aptitudes, this will also guide you in determining the best Sixth Form course for your child.

Below are the main features of the three different qualifications:


A levels

  • Two-year course
  • Assessed by exams at the end of the two years. Retakes are possible in each subject.
  • Typically three or four subjects. Additional courses in Critical Thinking or an Extended Project Qualification may be taken alongside.
  • Extended project: a piece of research on a topic of student’s choice, equivalent to half an A level and a unique opportunity to develop as an independent learner and find an academic passion.
  • A levels can be taken alongside Pre-Us, as individual Pre-U subjects are broadly equivalent to an A level.
  • Recognised by UK universities, and some international universities (eg. Singapore and Hong Kong). A-level grades translate into UCAS points: an A* is worth 56, an A is 48, etc. Students may be given an offer from a university of, say, 200 points, to include Chemistry, for example, at grade A, depending on the course applied for. Some offers may state the A level grades required, eg. 2 A* and 1 A



  • Two-year course
  • Assessed by exams at the end of the programme, plus some coursework assessed in school. Retakes are possible in individual subjects, though tend to be rare in practice.
  • Ethos: To develop a broad education and well-rounded critical thinkers.
  • Six subjects: English (in the UK), a foreign language, a humanities subject, a science, maths, an arts subject or an elective, which can be a second language, a humanities subject or a science.
  • The ‘core’: 150 hours of creativity, action and service so that students gain basic appreciation of the arts and sport and experience helping the local community.
  • Includes a critical thinking course
  • The extended essay: 4,000-word research project on a chosen topic – good preparation for university
  • Recognised by almost all universities, though particularly suited to a US college preparation. A university may ask for a specific subject score within the IB, depending on the course applied for. The IB is graded in points up to a maximum of 7 per subject.  When translated into UCAS points, an IB score of 7 in a Higher Level gives a student 56 UCAS points.



  • Two-year course for Principal Subjects (24 courses offered) and one year for Short Courses (9 are offered)
  • Assessed by exams at the end of the two years
  • Ethos of the diploma is to study complex subjects at depth
  • The full diploma includes a minimum of three principal subjects (one or two principal subjects may be substituted with an A Level) and the GPR.
  • Can be broken down into separate subjects, which can be taken alongside A levels. A Pre-U principal subject is broadly equivalent to an A-level subject.
  • The Global Perspectives and Research course (GPR) is a two year course that broadens the student’s learning beyond their subject specialism and must be taken to gain the full Pre-U diploma. The first year develops research and thinking skills on a range of global issues, preparing for an extended project report in the second year.
  • Recognised by 111 universities. Pre-U grades translate into UCAS points: a D1 or D2 is worth a maximum 56 points, a D3 is 52 points, etc.