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

Secondary Education Programmes

Having crossed the finish line and the opening of a new chapter, Primary 6 students and their parents would be wondering what are the similarities and differences between the various secondary education programmes.

There are various routes in the Secondary programme. 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) are synonymous.

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 Diploma (IBDP).

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 in the IP 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 that 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 IBDP?                                       

The IB Diploma Programme (IBDP) 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 the end of year 6.

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

Most independent IB 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.

An important point to note is that certain IB schools integrate the two subjects- English Language and English Literature, into one subject known as Language Arts. Students take Language Arts at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) [ACSI] from year 2 onward. The Language Arts curriculum focuses on Literature and their examination papers consist of Paper 1 (Unseen) and Paper 2 (Set Text). In sum, students are required to read either Literature (English or Language & Literature (English) to fulfil one of the IBDP requirements. Hence, the reading of Literature in English is compulsory.

On the other hand, the School Of The Arts (SOTA) offers English Language and English Literature as two separate subjects. Their English Language curriculum, English Language and Critical Thinking (ELCT), is similar to the O-Level paper 2, except the comprehension passages are theme-based and therefore the text types are mostly expository. In addition, there is a 10-mark Response Writing question which requires a short essay to test critical thinking of the issue raised in the comprehension passages. Hence, the ELCT curriculum infuses the critical thinking component, which is a precursor to Theory of Knowledge. Similarly, students at Year 5 are required to read either Literature in English, Language and Literature, or Literature and Performance at SOTA.

In addition, students undertake projects either individually or in groups, and they are no strangers to class presentations. Hence, many perceive that the IB programme favours those with a good command of the English language.

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

Besides the difference in the English Language curriculum, 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 junior college, 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 O-Level examinations.

At JC 1 or Year 5

For students taking the A-Levels, Project Work is a compulsory subject and it is the only A-Level subject (offered at H1 level*), apart from the Mother Tongue subjects, that is examinable at the end of year 1. The assessment consists of Paper 1 – the written component, which is further divided into a group written report and an individual Insights and Reflections report. Paper 2 is the oral presentation component which is assessed both individually and on the group basis.

Students who fare well in the English language may want to consider taking up Knowledge and Inquiry offered at H2 level*. The subject is akin to a philosophy course. If a student studies the Knowledge and Inquiry course, he/she does not need to take the General Paper offered at H1 level*.

This subject is similar to the Theory of Knowledge course offered in the IBDP, which is mandatory as it is core to the educational philosophy of the IBDP.

*H1, H2 and H3 levels of study are broadly equivalent to the ‘AO’, ‘A; and ‘Special Paper’ levels, respectively. The ascending numbers correspond to the ascending level of depth and difficulty.

On the other hand, in years 5 and 6 of the the IBDP, student are required to select one subject from each of its six subject groups. However, students may study an additional science, language and societies or language course in lieu of an arts course. On top of the six academic subjects, students have to fulfil three core components: Theory of Knowledge, Extended Essay, and Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS).

In terms of subject content, the A-Levels covers more depth, whereas the IBDP covers more breadth. Hence, the skills that the A-Levels student is equipped with is noticeably different from the IB student’s.

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 your children.

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