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Updated 6 Nov 2012

Curriculum defines a school. People talk about IB World Schools, American and British international schools, IPC schools. The curriculum sets these schools apart from each other; attracting new intake and new staff as well as defining, in large part, the school ethos. With more options available and greater freedom from governments to take responsibility for the choice of curricula, these distinctions are becoming more significant than ever before.

Meeting student needs

For international schools, high pupil turnover makes the choice of curriculum particularly crucial. It’s not simply an issue of definition. Especially in schools with a large intake of expatriate children, where up to 50 percent of the student population can change from one year to the next, selecting curricula that meet the immediate needs of these transitory children as well as establishing a long-term definition for the school is one of the biggest challenges a school has to face. 

Today, many international schools are selecting curricula that address the global demands and personal development needs of their students as well as their academic learning requirements. By choosing curricula that focuses on these needs, schools are putting learning at their centre of their development. 

Instead of simply adopting a single curriculum style, pioneering schools are mixing and matching curricula to exactly meet the learning needs of their children. Academic needs may be a major factor, but a more holistic learning approach (which incorporates personal, community and international learning) is now considered just as crucial to help prepare children, wherever they may live, for the challenges they will face as adults. 

Typical curriculum options in international schools

Primary Learning

The International Primary Curriculum (IPC) and the Primary Years Programme (PYP) provide an enquiry-based, thematic, cross-curricular and creative approach to learning that is relevant for both national and international schools. Both provide some structure but neither are as prescriptive for teachers as the National Curriculum of England which is still a popular choice in many international schools.

Many primary teachers and leaders like the learning process of the IPC and its structured framework which includes creative learning tasks that allow for flexibility in order to make it most relevant for the children and the location. The IPC provides opportunities for teachers in different schools and in different countries to collaborate on learning; creating real life experiences for international learning. The IPC identifies learning goals for children to work towards. An Assessment for Learning programme is provided.

The PYP from the International Baccalaureate is a constructivist curriculum, encouraging self and group-initiated research tasks. The PYP provides a learning framework and gives teachers the responsibility to develop their own line of enquiry. All the foundation subjects are incorporated, with maths and English taught separately. Some teachers like the lack of structure and the ‘blank sheet’ for creativity; other teachers find this a challenge. PYP teachers need talent, experience, organisation and good training. 

Some international schools follow a version of the American, Canadian or Australian curriculum as well as many – particularly the British International Schools – following the National Curriculum of England. The Australian curriculum is often modelled because of its progressive, creative approach to children’s learning. 

However, national systems are not completely relevant for children in international settings and most do not have an international focus to the learning. For example, a British international school located in the Middle East may well have some British expats but will also have children from many other nationalities including local children too. For these children, learning about the Great Fire of London or the Tudors (both included in the English National Curriculum) is not relevant, nor appropriate. This can create a situation where children become disengaged and can even feel excluded. As a result many international schools have to adapt the National Curriculum to ensure it is relevant for all their students. 

It can be very difficult for international schools to access resources specific to a National Curriculum. International curricula such as the IPC and the PYP are easier for resourcing and provide more flexibility to link learning to the location of the school and the intake of the students.

Middle Years

Until recently, there have been very few curriculum options for the middle years and, as a result, many schools have created their own. In more recent years, good quality options have been introduced. This has included the IB’s Middle Years Programme (MYP), which is designed for 11- to 16-year-olds, or the International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC), which is a follow-on to the IPC and has been created to meet the very specific learning needs of 11- to 14-year-olds.

Both the MYP and the IMYC provide a rigorous, thematic, creative approach to learning that follow a similar structural framework to their primary partners. Currently only the MYP is available for over 14s, meaning those studying the IMYC will usually move onto the IGCSE once moving to secondary school.

Secondary Years 

The IGCSE (which is the international version of the GCSE) is the exam delivered by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) for international students at age 16. Many international schools hold the IGCSE examination, whether they follow the MYP or adapted versions of national curricula. CIE has recently introduced its own international curriculum which is designed to work alongside existing curricula, allowing a child’s learning to be more appropriate for the IGCSE examination. A few international schools still follow the GCSE and others the American Programme. Several international schools, especially if they have a significant number of local students, also run the national curriculum for their country of location alongside their international secondary curriculum. 

For students who stay in education beyond 16 years of age, a significant number of international schools and some national schools around the world now offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. This is a highly academic programme with a well-rounded approach to subjects, making the IB Diploma well respected amongst many of the best universities in the world. The IB Diploma is unlike national curricula, so teachers new to the Diploma need to be prepared to develop new material and a new approach to teaching. The IB Diploma requires students to study six subjects, including a second language, maths and science. The programme also involves a Theory of Knowledge and a community of service element which all teachers are required to support.

Another popular choice for international schools is the international A Level provided by Cambridge International Examinations. The international A Level is adapted from the English national A Level to be more appropriate to international education. It is usual for a student to achieve between 3-4 A Levels over a two year period, each in a different subject. A Levels offer a student the chance to focus on the subjects that will be more appropriate for their chosen university course and are held in high regard by most universities across the world. However, they do not have the same scope as the IB Diploma, which teaches a more well-rounded set of skills that some see as more appropriate to the 21st century.

Skills and abilities of international teachers

Teaching in international schools requires experience, creativity, flexibility and positive attitude to be able to adapt to the specific curriculum needs of each individual school. Some teachers identify themselves as IB teachers or teachers skilled in the National Curriculum for England, and so on. This can certainly be a benefit. However, teachers who have the knowledge and skills of a range of curricula and who have the ability to adapt their teaching to meet the needs of different curriculum models, will be highly valued during recruitment selection.

Andrew Wigford Our Expat Expert

I am the Director of Teachers International Consultancy, which specialises in advice and placement for teachers in international education. I have been in international education for over 30 years, as a teacher, headteacher and recruitment consultant. I have travelled the world with my family working and living in some incredible locations. TIC works with some of the most respected and renowned international schools in the world, placing hundreds of teachers every year in some incredible positions. I have recently become one of only 13 COBIS mentors, offering recruitment support to leadership teams in COBIS schools.

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