The International Baccalaureate diploma (or IB) for 18-year-olds is popular on the continent and is offered by some independent schools in the UK as an alternative to A Levels. It is very different to A levels. An IB student takes 6 subjects and also must produce a long essay. Three of the subjects are studied in great detail (“Higher Level”) and 3 in less detail (“Standard Level”); Maths must be one of the 6 subjects as must the native language (English) a foreign language and a humanity. It is aimed at producing well-informed generalist 18-year-olds who can start specialising at University. On the other hand, the A level system is designed allow specialisation at 16 and yet more specialisation at University.

The IB includes some coursework in addition to exams at the end of the course.

The Maths options have changed quite a lot in recent years. Since 2014, the offerings have been:

At Standard Level

  • Mathematical Studies SL – an emphasis on reasoning
  • Mathematics SL – an emphasis on problem solving techniques

At Higher Level

  • Mathematics HL – a comprehensive Maths course.
  • Further Mathematics HL – a tough Maths course for 18-year-olds who are likely to want to study Maths in tertiary education. Done in addition to Mathematics HL


The Maths offered in the IB is quite different to that in A Levels. Someone who has spent 2 years studying for A Levels would not be able to succeed in an IB exam and vice-versa.  One feature of the IB is that all candidates must be able to use a high-spec state-of-the-art calculator to perform integrations for example. In A levels students have to do this using less-sophisticated calculators.

It’s difficult to compare IB with A Levels, but I would say that the Mathematics HL is a tougher exam than a Maths A Level and that Further Mathematics HL is a tougher exam than a Further Maths A Level. This paper by James Handscombe provides some useful information from a University’s point of view, but it refers to the pre-2014 IB Syllabus. http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-eps/college/stem/Activities/stem-education-network/Understanding-the-I-B/James-Hanscombe-TMAT-Paper.pdf


Please note the IB diploma is not the only IB qualification. There are:

  • the IB Middle Years Programme;
  • the IB Primary Years Programme.

I don’t teach either of these.

Martin Procter – August 2017


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