The Major International School Curriculums

A further 2,000 schools were teaching one of the four International Baccalaureate curriculums in a language other than English, while the national curriculums of countries such as Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands are also being taught in the mother tongue to (mainly) expatriate children in countries around the world. In this article we take a brief look at some of the major curriculums on offer at schools across the globe

A table showing the top English-language curricula. [2]

UK Schools

The world’s most widely taught English-medium curriculum is modeled on the English National Curriculum and taught at over 2,900 schools worldwide. British schools based overseas now contribute close to $1.6 billion in revenue to the UK economy, according to recent government figures.

The largest curriculum provider for international programs modeled on the English school system is Cambridge International Examinations [3] (CIE), offering qualifications and programs for 5 to 19 year olds across the world. The CIE’s most popular international qualification is the International General Certificate of Secondary Education [4] (IGCSE), targeted at 14 to 16 year olds. Today, Cambridge IGCSE curriculums are taught in 140 countries and in more than 3,700 schools (not all of which would be considered ‘international schools’), according to CIE data. At the upper secondary level, CIE offers International AS and A Levels, for 16 to 18 year olds, in more than 125 countries, with 350,000 entries each year.

The other major provider of English qualifications internationally [5] is Pearson Edexcel [6]. which offers curriculum and programs for learners aged 8 to 19. These include programs preparing students for IGCSEs and International A Levels. Additional to academic qualifications, Edexcel also offers programs leading to a more vocationally oriented International Diploma (ages 16 – 19), mixing a blend of academic courses and BTEC vocational courses.

At the primary and middle school level, Fieldwork Education [7] has been offering international programs based on the English National Curriculum for the last 25 years. Its most widely used curriculum is the International Primary Curriculum [8] (ages 3 -11), designed to produce specific learning goals and promote a sense of international mindedness. It is currently offered in more than 65 countries globally. The International Middle Years Curriculum [9] is the follow-on from the IPC and is designed for learners aged 11-14. Fieldwork curriculums are offered widely in the UK, in addition to internationally at independent schools and schools owned and operated by parent company World Class Learning Group [10].

For an in-depth look at UK-styled international curriculums and awards, including WES recommended equivalencies, please see the recent WENR article, A Guide to UK School Qualifications Offered Internationally [11].


As is broadly the case in the international schools market, schools offering an English-style national curriculum vary widely in their structure and quality. These schools are mainly private and may or may not be subject to local government oversight. For those schools wishing to distinguish themselves as being of particular quality, there are a number of membership and accreditation processes that can be sought.

To be recognized by the UK Department for Education (DfE), a British School Overseas [12] (BSO) must undergo a voluntary inspection and have an inspection report that shows its performance against all the BSO standards [13] is at least satisfactory. This reflects the standards required for continuing registration as a school in England. The DfE has approved eight inspectorates [14] to inspect schools internationally. Accreditation visits are required every three years to maintain BSO standing.

Support for the BSO program is also provided by four member organizations internationally. In addition to supporting the oversight work of the British Government through the BSO scheme, these organizations also provide a level of accountability through there own quality assurance mechanisms. These organizations are: British Schools in the Middle East [15] (BSME), the Council of British International Schools [16] (COBIS), Federation of British Schools in Asia [17] (FOBISSEA), and the National Association of British Schools in Spain [18] (NABSS).

By way of example, COBIS Accredited Schools must meet the standards set out by the UK government through the BSO program, while COBIS Member Schools must successfully complete an inspection by the Independent Schools Inspectorate [19]. Additionally, all schools must adhere to the organization’s code of ethics. There are currently 60 accredited COBIS schools and 116 Member Schools.

Additional to the BSO process highlighted above, a school might also seek accreditation through a respected international membership organization such as the Independent Schools Council [20] the Latin American Heads Conference [21], any of the member organizations noted above, or any of the inspectorates approved by the DfE. The Independent Schools Council currently recognizes 648 member and accredited schools across the world in addition to an equal number in the UK.

US Schools

According to the website of the Office of Overseas Schools [22] (OOS), a branch of the State Department, there are 197 American schools [23] overseas in 135 countries that are directly or indirectly assisted by the U.S. State Department to promote an American-style program for nationals of all countries and also U.S. citizens abroad. These do not include schools established and operated by the Department of Defense to teach the children of military personnel.

Schools range in size from 74 students at the Banjul American Embassy School [24] in The Gambia to 3,936 students at the Singapore American School [25]. Most are not-for-profit, owned and operated by a parents’ association, with most funding coming from tuition fees with additional assistance from the OOS.

Teaching is based on a core curriculum that prepares students to enter schools, colleges, and universities in the United States. The language of instruction is English, supplemented in most schools by the local language. Certain schools, especially in Latin America, must also fulfill host-country curriculum requirements, depending on the specific laws and regulations of that country. The teaching body of a typical school will be at least half U.S., or U.S-educated, often U.S. Government dependent spouses.

Enrollment at OOS-supported schools at the beginning of the 2013-14 academic year totaled 135,359, of which 36,904 were U.S. citizens. Of 17,553 teachers and administrators employed in the schools, 7,570 were U.S. citizens. This is a slight increase from the 2010-11 academic year, when enrollment totaled 126,510 total students and 34,602 U.S. students.

In addition to schools endorsed or assisted by the U.S. government, there are close to 1,500 other schools around the world that offer a U.S.-style curriculum, according to data from the ISC. Many of these seek accreditation through U.S. regional accrediting bodies, such as the New England Association of Schools and Colleges’ Commission on American and International Schools Abroad [26], the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools [27], or the Western Association of Schools and Colleges [28].

As there is no national curriculum in the United States (education policy being a mandate of individual states), those international schools around the world that do offer U.S. style curriculums tend to emphasize ‘principles’ and ‘standards’ of the U.S. education system. In addition to a focus on global citizenship, common to most international schools, the curriculum might also emphasize a broad, generalized education that encourages students to continue their studies in as many major disciplines as possible, rather than specializing early – a hallmark of the UK secondary system.

Students will typically work towards earning a High School Diploma, based on the accumulation of credits. At schools that offer multiple curriculums, students might earn these credits through regular high school courses, Advanced Placement [29] (AP) courses and/or IB courses. AP courses are of particular appeal to students looking to continue their education at selective U.S. institutions of higher education. Some schools will also encourage students to pursue the International Baccalaureate Diploma, while also accumulating credit for their high school diploma.

AP programs, administered by the College Board [30], are currently offered in more than 100 countries. Additionally, SAT college admissions tests are offered in over 175 countries outside the United States. In 2013, over 200,000 students took SAT program tests internationally.

In China, a potentially huge market for the SAT, the test is administered only at international schools that enroll foreign students. Current policy of China’s Ministry of Education prohibits the administration of foreign admission tests to mainland Chinese national students within mainland China. Therefore, Chinese citizens interested in taking the tests have to travel to SAT testing centers outside mainland China, most commonly Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. These regulations do not apply to international examinations such as the AP, as they are not used for the express purpose of university admissions.

International Baccalaureate

The International Baccalaureate Organization [31] works with 3,811 schools in 147 countries and offers three programs to over 1,191,000 students aged 3 to 19. In the United States alone there are 1,531 IB World Schools, although most would not be considered international schools as the programs typically compliment – rather than replace – local curriculums.

In 2011, nearly 7 percent of U.S. university applicants to universities had an IB Diploma, even though the qualification was offered in only 2 percent of U.S. high schools. These data are suggestive of a curriculum and assessment scheme that is highly regarded for university entry.

The IBO currently offers three separate curriculums: the Primary Years Program [32] (3-19), the Middle Years Program [33] (11-16) and the Diploma Program [34] (16-19). Generally speaking, IB programs are designed to be flexible enough to accommodate national or local curriculum requirements. The overriding methodological philosophy of all three programs is that of interactivity, inquiry, cross-disciplinary connections, and international awareness.

The three programs build upon each other, with six transdisciplinary themes of global significance explored in the Primary Years Program (PYP), along with six subject areas (arts; language; mathematics; physical, social and personal education; science; and social studies). The learning emphasis is inquiry-based and outcomes focused, designed to identify what students know, understand and can do as a result of their learning. All assessment in the PYP is carried out internally by teachers within the school. The IB does not set examinations nor does it moderate grades in the PYP.

The Middle Years Program (MYP) builds on the learning undertaken at the PYP level and retains many of the core methodological concepts, seeking to make real-world connections across the curriculum. The IB MYP is based on classes and assessment in eight subject areas (English, second language, humanities, science, mathematics, the arts, physical education and technology). Students must also complete a personal project in grade 10 designed to build independent study skills.

The IB Diploma is an integrated liberal arts program of study, which requires students to take classes and assessment in six subject areas (including a second language) across a range of disciplines to ensure breadth of knowledge. Students must also complete an extended essay based on independent research, undertake a theory of knowledge course, and participate in co-curricular and community service activities.

Students take written examinations at the end of the program, which are marked by external IB examiners. Results from these examinations are supplemented by in-class assessment tasks, which are either initially marked by teachers and then moderated by external moderators or sent directly to external examiners. The marks awarded for each course range from 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest). Students can also be awarded up to three additional points for their combined results on theory of knowledge and the extended essay. The diploma is awarded to students who gain at least 24 points (out of a maximum of 45), with minimum requirements across the whole program.

Generally speaking, the IB Diploma Program is considered to be more academically rigorous than most national curriculums, and excellent preparation for university study. A 2011 survey [35] of university admissions officers in the US, UK and other European countries, comparing the IB with domestic secondary qualifications, concluded that it was the “top passport to international education.”

In the study, British admissions officers rated the A Level superior in assessing detailed knowledge of a subject. However in every other category the IB was rated either equal or superior to other qualifications. The survey was commissioned by ACS International Schools, a group of independent schools based in Britain.

Hybrid Schools

For lack of a better term, many international schools around the world might be considered ‘hybrid’ in the sense that they offer students a mix of different curriculum choices.

While a school, for example, might describe itself as an American-style institution, be recognized by a U.S. regional accreditation body, and offer mainly AP classes and SAT test preparation at the upper secondary level; it may additionally offer IB and A-Level classes as supplemental choices. Alternatively, it might offer a US high school diploma as its graduation certificate, while also encouraging students to pursue the IB Diploma. Indeed it is not uncommon for some schools to offer AP, IB or A Level options to its upper secondary students.

There is great diversity in the international schools market, and this comes in the composition of the student and faculty body, in how the school is governed, and indeed in what curricular offerings it has, among many other variables.

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