Secondary Education Programmes: Through Train, IP, IB and O-Levels

Secondary Education Programmes


With the release of the PSLE results, P6 students and their parents would be wondering what are the similarities and differences between the various secondary education programmes.

The term “through train” refers to a six-year Secondary programme where the student sits for either the A-Levels or the IB Diploma at the end of the six years. Therefore the terms “through train programme” and Integrated Programme (IP) mean the same thing.

Integrated Programme

The Integrated Programme integrates the Secondary and Junior College (JC) education where the student proceeds to JC without sitting for the O-Levels. This programme is offered to academically strong students who will be exposed to broad learning experiences in both the academic and non-academic curriculum.

There are two secondary education programmes under the IP: one programme culminates in the A-Levels, and the other, the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma.

The respective A-Level IP schools design the curriculum for the first four years of the IP. The syllabi and modes of assessment differ from one IP school to another. However, many IP syllabi follow quite closely to the O-Levels because the skill sets required at the A-Levels is a continuum from the O-Levels. Hence it is not uncommon to find that certain A-Level IP exam papers are very similar to their O-Level counterpart’s in dual-track Secondary schools which offer both the O-Level and A-Level IP programmes.

Catering to Different Learning Styles

The various modes of assessment include group projects, individual coursework and final examinations. Group projects involve working with group members to research on a topic, gather information, analyse and evaluate the information or data. These projects usually culminate in individual oral presentations on a group basis. The whole process is assessed by the teacher using their assessment rubrics. A rubric helps to ensure that the desired learning objectives are measured and evaluated with reliability. These assessment tools can be used to grade written coursework, oral presentations and class participation.

Individual coursework involves the student conducting his/her own research on the topic required, and writing a report or essay as a final product. Sometimes, it may involve individual oral presentation as well.

Therefore, a student in the IP will have to juggle many projects and coursework at the same time, each with different deadlines. Given students often has to juggle many projects at the same time, the students are required to possess self-discipline and good time management skills to juggle the various works-in-progress, and to keep in constant view the different deadlines of the various assignments.

How About the IB?                                       

The IB programme is a non-profit educational foundation offering programmes of international education at various educational levels. It offers a broad-based education with an inquiry approach to learning. The breadth of subjects includes Theory of Knowledge, International Studies and foreign languages, among the other core subjects. Except for the international schools, the IB programme offered by the independent schools begins at year 5 with the award of the IB Diploma at the end of the course of study at year 6.

What, then, is the curriculum like from years 1 to 4?

Most independent schools design their own IB curriculum to align with the academic requirements of the IB Diploma. Therefore, each IB curriculum across different IB schools differs. However, for certain IB schools, there are similarities in the syllabi for most of the subjects (save for Language Arts- see below) with the O-Level syllabi. Their modes of assessment are very similar to those in the A-Level IP, that is, they are assessed on individual coursework, group projects, oral presentations and final examinations. Due to the fact that every assignment, project and coursework is assessed based on the respective desired learning outcomes, it is expected that the assessment rubrics will be different for each assignment.

So What’s the (Real) Difference between the IP and the O-Level Secondary Education Programmes?

Students in the O-Level secondary education programme sit for the O-Level Examinations at the end of the fourth year (or fifth year for Normal Academic programme) before proceeding to a post-secondary institution like a JC, polytechnic, or pre-university. Due to the fact that teachers have to prepare their students for the O-Levels at the end of the four years, the curriculum tends to gear towards the O-Levels from day one. The curriculum is structured and aligned very closely to the demands of the O-Level exams, which is a pen-and-paper test except for the language oral exams and the Science Practical exams. With the goal post set up very clearly at the start, the students are taught the range of skills required to do well in the examinations.

The most distinctive difference between the IP (A-Levels or IB) and the O-Levels is that the six-year programme requires the student to conduct research and write up reports and essays as part of their assignments. There is a lot of scope for self-directed learning in this programme.

In addition, the IB programme integrates the two subject- English Language and English Literature. Hence, students in the IB programme will study English Language and English Literature as one subject known as Language Arts. Apart from Language Arts, students also have to take the subject Theory of Knowledge and write a 4000-word Extended Essay. Hence, many tend to perceive that the IB programme favours those with a good command of the language.

Moving Ahead

I hope this post has helped to clear some questions about the different secondary education programmes offered in Singapore. It is an exciting and dynamic educational landscape where our children can thrive and perform to their fullest potential. Knowing your child’s abilities and playing to their strengths are the key ingredients for a happy and fulfilling school life for our children.

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