Knowing whether to choose the IB or A level curriculum is a dilemma many teens are faced with, living in the diverse international learning environment of the UAE.

What’s the difference between IB and  A-level?

Usually A-level students specialize in the three or four subjects they are most interested in. This makes it particularly beneficial for students who already know what they want to do in life. For example, if a student wants to be a doctor and study medicine at University, they know what courses they need to study for A level.

[Compare schools offering A-level in the UAE]

“The problem comes when students aren’t sure what they want to do” explains Sarah Thomas, who is an Education Manager for Taaleem, a Dubai-based Education Provider with schools offering British, IB and American curricula.

“The danger with specializing too soon is that it may cut off their options later down the track. The IB Diploma programme, on the other hand, enables students to maintain a broader educational experience”.

IB students study six subjects, three at Higher Level and three at Standard level. These subjects must include Maths, English (or French or Spanish as a first language), a foreign language and one science subject. Students also select a humanity, such as geography, history or psychology, and choose one other subject from any category. On top of that, there’s a 4,000 word self-directed research project on a topic of their choice, known as the Extended Essay. Examples of titles include “the portrayal of beauty versus ugliness in English Literature”, or “To what extent has the fall of oil prices affected the tourist industry in Dubai?” Students are encouraged to ground their research in a subject they would like to study at University.

[Related: Guide to choosing a school in the UAEChoosing the right curriculum for your child]

Students are also required to study ‘Theory of Knowledge’, which is the study of the nature of knowledge and how we know what we claim we know. Students write a 1,600-word essay on a prompt and prepare a 30-minute presentation. “This is probably the most challenging aspect of the IB syllabus as it involves students critically evaluating knowledge and acknowledging their own cultural paradigms”, says Thomas.

In addition, IB students are also required to put in 150 hours of ‘CAS’ (Creativity Action Service): 50 hours of a creative activity e.g. learning an instrument, 50 hours of physical activity, such as taking up a new sport, and 50 hours of community service – for example working in an orphanage in Tanzania for a week. The newly-introduced IB Career Programme offers students a more vocational pathway, giving 16-18 year olds even more choice than before.

[Compare schools offering IB in the UAE]

Which curriculum should you pick?

So how do you choose the system that would suit your child best?

“If your child likes structure and a content-driven learning environment, and knows what they want to do, then A-Levels are better”, according to Thomas.

“Much more independent learning is required on the time-consuming IB course, so the child needs to be organized, self-disciplined and able to research independently, and be able to think outside the box.”

Switching curriculum

If you do feel your child is in a school system that doesn’t suit their needs, Thomas claims it’s not difficult to switch from one to the other: “For the IB Diploma, it’s advised they do the Middle Years Programme (MYP) to prepare them through a rigourous inquiry-based learning approach. However, there are many students who’ve achieved high grades at GCSEs who go on to do very well on the IB diploma, without a doubt. But whereas MYP is open to receiving students from the GCSE system, it’s not always so true the other way round.

[Related: American curriculum schools in Dubai

“My advice to parents is to start thinking about which course is right for their child from when they’re 14 – don’t leave it any later. Look into possible university courses or jobs and find out what the requirements are. Remember though, internationally-based students are increasingly looking into universities outside of their home country. The IB Diploma programme is universally accepted and respected by universities around the world”.

With the number of IB programmes offered worldwide growing by 46.35% between December 2009 and December 2014, the IB programme is becoming more popular, including at schools in the UK. Ultimately both systems are excellent and it is all about which best suits your child’s needs.