IB Diploma students from Taylor’s College Sri Hartamas doing community service in Cambodia to fulfil the CAS component of their studies. File Pic
IB Diploma students from Taylor’s College Sri Hartamas doing community service in Cambodia to fulfil the CAS component of their studies. File Pic

IF you are the parent of secondary school children, you may be wondering this exact question as you think about life beyond Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) or the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE).

A Levels and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma are very rigorous pre-university qualifications. Neither is “better” — they are just very different.

Deciding which qualification will best suit your children and give them the most opportunities for success can be challenging, especially if you aren’t confident of the differences.

This article seeks to “demystify” the two qualifications, helping you to have positive and productive conversations with your children about which might be the “best fit” for them.


Both are equally accepted by universities worldwide. Although A Levels tend to be better known in Malaysia, the IB Diploma is also highly regarded and considered equal as a university entrance qualification in the United Kingdom and other countries.

Both are well-established. A Levels were introduced in the UK in 1951, and the first IB Diploma examinations were conducted in 1970.

Both qualifications usually take two years to study, beginning in Year 12. While some schools in Kuala Lumpur offer a “fast track” 18-month timeframe for A Levels, the IB Diploma cannot be studied in less than two years.


Number of subjects: A Level students typically study four subjects in Year 12 (AS Level) and three in Year 13 (A2 Level). IB Diploma students take six subjects that stay the same during their two-year programme, and also have additional compulsory components to fulfill (see “Breadth” below).

Choice of subjects: A Level students have complete choice on which subjects they pursue.

For example, they can focus only on Math and Science, or just on English and Humanities.

For the IB Diploma, on the other hand, students must study a wide range of subjects — a language and literature course, Math, Science, a foreign language and a humanities/ business course (from the Individuals and Societies’ subject group).

They can choose an arts subject as their sixth choice, or pick a second subject from the other five groups.

Breadth: In addition to completing six subjects, IB Diploma students must complete an independent research project — a “Community, Action, Service” (CAS) component equalling around 150 hours of service, and pass a philosophy/critical thinking course called Theory of Knowledge.

None of these components are required in A Levels.

Structure: A Levels are split into two phases — AS and A2 levels. The AS Level is taken during Year 12 and serve as a “base” for Year 13. Students’ performance in AS exams usually contributes towards their final A2 grade, which is published on their certificate.

The IB Diploma isn’t split like this. However, out of the six subjects a student elects to study, three must be Higher Level (HL) and three must be Standard Level (SL).

HL subjects are in-depth and detailed, and they are taught for a minimum of 240 hours total, compared with a minimum of 150 hours for SL subjects.

Grading: A Levels are graded on a letter system (A* to E), whereas IB Diploma subjects are marked on a score of 1 to 7, with 7 roughly equivalent to an A*. A total of 24 points overall is needed to obtain the IB Diploma qualification, and the perfect score is 45.


This is the million-dollar question! Every child is different and it is difficult to give generic advice. Here are some tips that might help you decide:

• Is your child an all-rounder?

If they enjoy a range of subjects — English, Maths, Science, Languages and Art — then they’ll probably thrive in the IB Diploma programme.

• Does your child demonstrate clear preference and aptitude for certain subjects?

If so, say Math and Science, then focusing of these subjects in A Levels may suit them.

• Does your child struggle with organisation and time management?

If so, the high levels of organisation and time management required for success in the IB Diploma (given the breadth of the programme) may be a real challenge. Of course, a good school will support your child in building these skills. But it is still worth considering whether fewer subjects in A Levels might be more manageable.

• Does your child enjoy independent research and extended writing? If not, they may find the heavy written demands of the IB Diploma a challenge, and prefer instead to take three to four A Level subjects that don’t involve extended writing.


Whichever pre-university qualification you ultimately decide on, many international schools here in Kuala Lumpur are currently offering generous Sixth Form scholarships for students joining Year 12 in August.

If your child has strong predicted SPM or IGCSE grades and a proven track record of academic excellence, it is well worth researching some of the scholarships and dropping in an application.

The writer is the founder of SchoolSelect Malaysia, a school consultancy service.