Comparing global education systems

Navigating global education systems, exams and qualifications can require nerves of steel on the part of the globally mobile family. This overview of some the key considerations will help families consider their next move.

Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20
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The following article is from Relocate Global's Guide to Education & Schools in the UK 2019/20 which is packed with expert tips and information for those relocating and the professionals supporting them. Access your free digital copy hereFor co-branded or bespoke editions for your employees, contact Fiona Murchie on +44 (0)1892 891334 or email

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Comparing global education systems

For families making an international move with school-age children, there can be an overwhelming number of considerations to factor in to the planning process. Depending on the ages of the children and which school they currently attend, there will be many difficult and emotionally charged decisions to make.Children are likely to be settled in their existing schools, with firm friendship groups, and they will be accustomed to an established system of learning. Not only will there be cultural challenges ahead, but there will also be new education systems to navigate, which could present a host of pitfalls if parents have not been advised to consider their next move.While a foreign assignment can be one of the most life-changing experiences, offering new and exciting opportunities, it is vital that families keep one eye on the future. Not all education systems around the world are equal, and, without giving careful thought to each stage of learning – and the resulting qualifications for each child – families could overcomplicate repatriation and, at worst, hinder entry into a preferred higher-education institution.

Global education systems

Every education system around the world has its own examination arrangement or assessment of pupil performance, which usually allows students to move on to the next stage of learning. Luckily for UK citizens, the education system in Britain is one of the most revered and widely replicated learning structures across the globe.In fact, education is one of the UK’s biggest exports; according to figures from ISC Research over 45 per cent of all international schools teaching in the English language offer a British-based curriculum.GIESF-in-text-bannerFamilies moving from the UK often find themselves in the enviable position of selecting from a large number of international schools teaching a British curriculum, which offers students not only continuity of education on the outbound relocation but also ease of repatriation back into the UK education system, particularly when it comes to exam time.Although these schools will largely be fee-paying, some will have the advantage of being accredited by British-government-approved inspectorates, offering families further peace of mind.In fact, in many of the rapidly developing major international relocation destinations, such as the Middle East and Asia Pacific, it will be necessary to attend a fee-paying international school, as state education is unlikely to be available to, or a viable option for, expatriate families.However, in destinations such as many European countries, the USA and Australia, state education systems are highly regarded, and families may be more open to the prospect of a local state-funded school. This option has the added advantages of helping with social integration and being an alternative to costly fee-paying international schools.Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20

Considering future moves

It is vital that families choosing to enter the state education system of their destination country are advised to consider any future moves or possible repatriation issues. For example, in the USA, while the standard of state education is considered to be high, schools offer an entirely different learning curriculum from the UK, even differing from state to state within the country.In addition, the US education system does not offer an end-of-school assessment comparable to the British GCSEs and A Levels.

Comparing final exams

With that in mind, if the child of an assignee is heading towards the completion of secondary or high school in the state education system of their host country, it will be necessary for the family to understand the levels of achievement required for entry into a higher-education institution or a profession.Comparisons between end-of-school exam systems and/or methods of assessment of different countries are notoriously difficult to make. Ideally, families should be advised to avoid a move during this particularly tricky stage. If presented with this challenge, there are methods of determining the standards and equivalent levels of qualifications students will gain while the family is on an overseas assignment.In the UK, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), an organisation which co-ordinates applications to most British higher-education institutions, operates a tariff system whereby it attributes points to grades achieved in post-16 qualifications. The points system covers many qualifications, including all the UK exams, such as A Levels and Scottish Highers, but also includes some of the qualifications that are likely to be obtained overseas, such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), the Irish Leaving Certificate, and the Advanced Placement Programme, which is offered in the US and Canada.UCAS accepts that, increasingly, comparisons need to be made with international qualifications as a consequence of the rise in global mobility, and has published guidance on this, which offers help to families making further-education decisions.Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20“Globalisation is leading to a greater mobility of students across the world,” states the UCAS International Qualifications Guide. “It is therefore important that higher-education admissions officers, staff and tutors are fully aware of the qualifications that may be offered by international applicants.”The guide goes some way to ensuring that international students are assessed fairly when entering the UK higher-education system. UCAS aims to promote a greater understanding of the value of international qualifications, and is helping higher-education providers to make realistic offers to international students and those returning to the UK having obtained qualifications overseas.Another UK-based resource that offers help to understand the value of overseas qualifications is the UK National Recognition Information Centre (UK NARIC), a designated National Agency responsible for providing information and advice on qualifications worldwide. Its services are offered to individuals and organisations advising on comparisons of international qualifications against UK framework levels.Competition to top universities around the world is fierce but students with an international education can have the edge due to the unique nature of their schooling environment and experience.The UWC education movement, which has 17 campuses around the world, is a case in point. Its ethos and practice go beyond solely academic instruction to foster leadership skills and those of tolerance and collaboration.At Pearson College UWC in Canada, students learn to think and collaborate across countries, cultures, disciplines and sectors by leading and facilitating initiatives on campus and taking responsibility for the community. Students built the composter on campus and designed and constructed the greenhouse and they also have one or more volunteer jobs that help to keep the community running.The unique nature of their instruction means that applications to higher education institutions inevitably stand out: 13 Pearson College UWC alumni have gone on to become Rhodes Scholars at the University of Oxford.

Benchmarking international qualifications

In 2008, the European Commission devised the European Qualifications Framework (EQF), which divides learning stages and qualifications gained into eight levels.
The framework ranges from Level 1, ‘basic general knowledge’, to Level 8, ‘knowledge at the most advanced frontier of a field of work or study’. Most qualifications around the world can be placed within these levels, to offer a guide to both the comparable levels of learning with an unfamiliar education system and the final exams on offer.The UK, along with many other EU member countries, has restructured its own qualifications framework in line with the EQF. As a general guide, those taking GCSEs with passes at grades D–G would sit within Level 1, Level 2 would include GCSE grades A*–C, AS and A Level, and the International Baccalaureate would be classified as Level 3. Level 6 would take in a bachelor’s degree, and Level 8 would represent those with a doctorate.UNESCO’s detailed breakdowns of international education systems and qualifications benchmarked against a similar structure to the EQF can be found on the UNESCO website.While there are many resources to help guide families to a better understanding of what they may face when choosing a state education system in their overseas destination, there is no substitute for discussing the specifics of the learning options with the schools and colleges themselves.This article was refreshed on 25 July 2019.To read the 2019/20 UK version, please access your free digital copy here
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