The great school debate: IB vs A Levels

Nancy Wilson talks to heads of local international schools in Monaco, Mougins and Nice

Mary Maccaud, International School of Monaco (IB)

school pupil"At ISM, students in years 12 and 13 study the IB Diploma, an internationally recognised qualification which is ideally suited to students with an international background. We believe it provides a good balance between breadth and depth of subjects and is viewed as an excellent preparation for university. Universities, not just in the UK, but in Europe and North America are increasingly turning to the IB as a 'gold standard' in education. Some American universities even give credits so that students can join the second year of their university studies straight from school with their IB Diploma.

The IB Diploma is a two year course of study in six separate subjects, with specific requirements in maths, science, English, a foreign language and a humanity. Students study six subjects, three at Higher Level and three at Standard Level. For a small school, ISM offers a very good range of subjects including a wide variety of languages, three separate sciences, four separate humanities, as well as art. Maths and English are compulsory for everybody. Students also prepare an extended essay, follow a course in Theory of Knowledge and take at least 50 hours of 'Creativity Action and Service', this includes sport, expeditions and community projects.

Middle School (classes 7 to 9) follows the IB Middle Years Programme, which encourages students to become more independent learners and take responsibility for their own learning. While the language of teaching is primarily in English, there is a strong French programme with Spanish as a third language. One special feature of our school is mother tongue support in Italian, German and Russian. Classes 10 and 11 continue with the same programme but also prepare specifically for the International GCSE exams set by the Cambridge Board.

In our last two classes this year we have 22 in Class 12 and 26 in class 13 (the graduating class). We are extremely proud of our - so far! - unbroken 100 per cent success rate. In the past five years, all of our IB Diploma students have not only passed the IB Diploma but have an average score of 33 points. This is above average for IB schools worldwide.

We have a full-time guidance counsellor who helps our students with all aspects of their university applications including preparing the students for interviews. We organise regular information meetings also for parents, with visiting universities and also take our students to events such as the recent British universities fair held at Sophia Antipolis.

I advise our senior students to take advantage of the full two year programme and work consistently throughout, not leaving it all to the last few months. Graduated students have often commented that the rigour of the IB Diploma has prepared them extremely well for university. Come and see for yourselves!"

Brian Hickmore, Mougins School (A Level)

"Contrary to what people think, when it comes to applying to university there is not much difference between the IB and A Level programs. That's an outdated way of thinking and in fact, in 1997, forty-two countries signed the Lisbon Convention stating that each country would accept a final diploma from the others. The US understands the A Level system, as does France. This is why NARIC - National Recognition Information Centre - offices exist worldwide, to provide students with academic information on diplomas and university applications. Of course, to be accepted into Yale or Oxford, you need a mention très bien in the French bac, five A Levels with an A average or a minimum 42 out of 45 for the IB program.

At Mougins School, we try to make learning interesting at Key Stage 3 - Junior High - with local geographical studies and other subjects that are not available at Key Stage 4 - Senior High. In Form 12, four or five subjects are chosen with one or two dropped in the final year. There are fifteen subjects available with no restrictions in the combination of course selection, except that students must have eight GSCEs which include English, math and science - with a minimum C average. At the GCSE level - that's Form 10 and 11 - we encourage students to choose something they may never do again. This of course will have no impact on their future but it will say something about the student on a university application. We offer a tutorial from Form 12 to assist students with researching universities online, preparing their applications and helping them to apply. The school has a 99 per cent A Level success rate. Students who wish to retake a module exam to push up their mark are welcome to do so but they will have to pay the additional exam fees. Of course, we encourage them to do their best first time round. GSCE classes are never more than 22 students and it's worth mentioning that Mougins School can usually accept students at the senior levels because of the smaller-sized classes.

You know, eighty percent of teenagers have no idea what they want to do nowadays. The world is a tougher, more cut throat global market and the media has put some pretty negative stuff about employment out there. We try to encourage students to do things they like. We have been called Club Med more than once but frankly, kids want to be at school here. The environment is special and once we have them here, then we can motivate them to learn."

Michael Wylie, International School of Nice (IB)

"Philosophically, the IB curriculum is not just about grades but readying students to lead the world into a sustainable future. In my opinion, it's the best preparation for university. IB students have a broad scope which includes six areas of learning: first language (maternal), second language, humanities, sciences, math and arts - which at ISN includes drama. There are two other points that Mrs Maccaud touched upon: First, is CAS - Creativity, Action and Service. Students develop skills in these three areas outside of the classroom. To give you an example of Service, a group of ISN students will be doing some volunteer work in Tanzania at the end of May. Second, there's the extended essay component, a mini-thesis if you like, where students are given a subject to research and write 4000 words. Needless to say, this is a helpful exercise for when they enter university.

Grades 7 and 8 - Junior High - follow the curriculum within the school: math, science, PE, and classical subjects. We try to develop exam skills at these levels so that students won't be too stressed out in their senior years; they'll know how to do it. In Senior High - grades 9 and 10 - students take nine IGCSE subjects. They will move on with six of these into grades 11 and 12.

Since the school opened its doors, ISN has has a 95 per cent average success rate. Class sizes are never more than 22 and as of next year, the school year will operate in two semesters. We have a college counsellor available in grades 11 and 12 to help students with their applications as well as to discover their strengths, take aptitude tests, that kind of thing.

Students can resit exams in November if they wish to bring up their grades but my advice for getting the exam right the first time round is, obviously, to start studying early and to stay balanced. Eat right, get enough sleep and play sports. All of these things help manage stress. Most importantly, though, be prepared. What are you going to do if you miss a question on the exam? Don't panic - move on to the next one. I believe, what makes a person successful is how he or she reacts when things don't go right. Be prepared and take the necessary steps to make them right again."

For contact information see page 38. The European Council of International Schools (ECIS) annual conference - the largest of its kind with 3000 participants including college admissions personnel - runs Nov. 20th to 23rd at the Acropolis in Nice. For details see Other websites of interest: - -

From Riviera Reporter Issue 127: June/July 2008