A Level, IB or Foundation – Which Should You Choose?

When choosing to send your children to the UK for their pre-university years. There are really three routes of entry to choose from; A Levels, the International Baccalaureate (IB) and pre-university Foundation courses. 

No model is perfect, they each have their strengths and weaknesses. Therefore it is important to consider which one plays to the strengths of your individual son or daughter.



The A-Level, or ‘advanced level’ is a grade of education offered by educational institutions such as schools and colleges. A-Levels are the most widely accepted qualification for UK universities. Around 85% of 16-18-year-olds undertake this qualification. 

A-Levels are normally taken after successful completion of GCSEs or iGCSEs. Although many Hong Kong students will have studied the HKCEE. 

Many students opt to take a one year GCSE programme; following their HKCEE not only to give themselves an introduction to the British education system. To catch up in subjects which they may not have sufficient grounding. And to improve their English prior to taking A Levels but also to integrate at a college culturally and socially.

Generally, students study three or four subjects as part of the linear Level course with exams taken at the end of the second year.

Cardiff Sixth Form College however still follows the AS and A2 A level system with 4-5 subjects studied in the first year and 3-4 in the second.

Dukes Education


The advantages of A-Levels are that they are the gold standard of pre-university education and are accepted by all universities. 

It is extremely difficult to access some of the top universities (such as Oxford for example) without A-Levels for international students.  Being the most widely offered qualification there is plenty of choice as to how and where to study. So international students can choose a further education college, sixth form or a private school. 

There is also a wide range of subjects to choose from and subjects can be taken in any combination. Focusing on fewer subjects means students are able to attain a higher level of achievement in each of the subjects they focus on. And can concentrate on what they enjoy, are good at and want to study in greater depth. 

Statistically, A-Levels are still a more reliable route into university with 81% of A-Level students gaining their first or second choice as opposed to 69% of IB students.  Despite the ‘grade inflation’ claims, it is still harder to achieve an A* at A-Level than to achieve the same top subject score of a seven in IB. 

Doing A-Levels also ensures that students are able to focus on extra-curricular and, at Cardiff Sixth Form College, super curricular activities, vital for a personal statement and university interviews.


The disadvantages of the A-Level system are that some see improving A-Level grades as a sign of ‘grade inflation’; claiming that A-Levels are too easy to pass. From a Hong Kong student’s perspective; it is important to have a good grasp of English before studying A-Levels which is why many choose the one year GCSE option prior. 

As a result of the number of subjects, it can be considered restrictive. This is because most A-Level courses are limited to 3 to 5 subjects. However, at Cardiff Sixth Form College, due to the nature of the student body, some students will study more. 

A reduced focus on extra-curricular activities may mean A-Level students are less ‘well-rounded’ than IB students.


The International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate aims to develop ‘inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help create a better world through intercultural understanding and respect.’ 

There are six compulsory subject groupings; three at a higher level and three at a standard level including a first language, second language, social science, science and mathematics. 

The final subject grouping includes music, theatre and visual arts and students can either choose one of these subjects or study an additional science, social science or language subject. 

In addition, students submit a 4,000-word research essay and undertake a Theory of Knowledge course plus a Creativity; Action and Service programme.


The advantages of the IB is that it is globally recognised by universities and employers, and it is highly regarded in Europe and the US. 

It encourages confidence, critical thinking and independent learning. In addition, it fully encompasses the broader aspects of education including physical; creative, cultural and social elements ensuring that students are well rounded. 

It is easier to gain the top subject score of a seven in the IB than it is to achieve an A* at A-Level and the flexible subject combination encourages breadth of learning.  Research by the IBO states that IB students are more likely to be enrolled at top HE institutions.

The downside to the IB is that students must pass all six elements and a low score in one area could lower their entire score.  Only 69% of IB students secure their first or second choice of university. 

It is very time consuming:  some students complain that the IB eats into the time they would rather devote to drama, music or sport.  In the case of the sciences, students are also limited to only studying two sciences, whereas, with the A-Level; pupils can opt for biology, chemistry and physics. 

For some vocational courses, the greater practical content of A Levels is favoured by universities.


Pre-University Foundation courses

Pre-University Foundation courses are designed to equip international students who have left high school with the academic and English language skills necessary to study for an undergraduate degree at a UK university. 

Foundation courses are often provided directly by the universities, but could be taught at a partner college such as Earlscliffe’s Business Foundation. Foundation courses are ideal for international students. Particularly for those who don’t possess the grades required for entry into a British degree programme. It also works for those who don’t meet the English language requirements for entry into a UK degree course. 

Lastly, foundation courses are also ideal for those who want to strengthen or refresh their learning and build confidence.


The advantages of studying a Foundation course is that the failure rate is lower than that of A-Levels; so students who fail A Levels may succeed in a foundation course instead.  Students can often join these courses with a lower level of English than that required for A Level study. 

A Foundation enables a student to specialise in one subject area and it is an ideal option for older international students; seeking to complete the pre-university study within one year. 

Foundation courses are accepted by universities offering good education and it is more affordable; than A-Levels or the IB as the course can be completed in just one year.

Foundation courses are not as widely offered and there is less choice of where to study. The foundation courses are not accepted if a student wants to study medicine. 

Foundation courses do not educate students to the same level as A-Levels and therefore the first year of university may be difficult for some.


In the case where a course is taught by a partner college, and not directly by the university; Students may miss out on access to facilities.

Those on a student visa may not be able to study A-Levels if they fail a foundation course, however; it is entirely possible to study at foundation course if they fail their A-Levels.

In conclusion, A-Level, IB and Pre-University Foundation Courses are all valid entrance routes into UK universities, however; no model is without its flaws. 

In conclusion, A-Level, IB and Pre-University Foundation Courses are all valid entrance routes into UK universities, however; no model is without its flaws. Click To Tweet

A Level remains the most popular – the gold standard of a British education.  However, every school or college is different and no single model suits all institutions. 

There is no single approach to pre-university education that is the best fit for all students. However; in general, the IB is good for all-rounders; A-Levels suited to specialists and Foundation courses to less able students. 

What is most important is to consider academic achievements, language skills; career aspirations, study location, age and duration of study when choosing the best study route for each individual student.

Henrietta Lightwood is Group International Marketing and Admissions Director for Dukes Education which owns Cardiff Sixth Form College; Earlscliffe, Rochester Independent College and Fine Arts College as well as summer schools and consultancy. 

Henrietta has sat on the Operating Board for the British Council and is currently an advisor on the strategy board for the Metropolis Group.


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