The full English: a global education on a platter?

Is the English National Curriculum, with its well-established GCSE and A levels, the best fit for an international education? Sally Robinson takes a deep dive into one of the world's most popular curriculums.

From Bahrain to Bangkok, there’s every chance relocating families will find an English-medium school nearby – and it’s highly likely it will follow the British curriculum.According to 2023 ISC Research, there are 13,614 English medium international schools around the world, enrolling close to 7 million students. Around 35% of international schools offer the British curriculum leading to GCSE exams at 16. The curriculum’s A levels taken at 18 are still the most popular exit qualification, offered by 35% of international schools compared with 28% for the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IBDP).So, what makes the British curriculum so popular? Its supporters say it’s well established, globally recognised and offers academic rigour, combined with a student-centred holistic education.For Mougins British International School in France, it is the clear and progressive structure from the early years through to A levels that works so well. “It ensures students develop a solid foundation in all key subjects and the structured approach is essential in building knowledge systematically,” says the school’s Lise Cudin. Its  flexibility is also a key advantage: “It allows us to cater to individual needs and interests, especially with elective subjects in later stages.”“British education has an excellent reputation worldwide,” says Dr Fiona Rogers, deputy CEO of the Council of British International Schools (COBIS), a not-for-profit membership organisation working in partnership with the Department for Education. “The broad and balanced curriculum and recognised transferable qualifications contribute to that, alongside a focus on pastoral care and extra-curricular opportunities.”When Rugby School Japan opened in 2023, using the British curriculum was an easy choice: “IGCSE and A levels provide excellent preparation for universities worldwide and professional careers beyond,” says the school’s founding principal, Tony Darby. “It is a broad curriculum that is intellectually challenging and allows our students the freedom to develop their academic passions.”

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The basics of the British curriculum

The British curriculum is based on the English National Curriculum (ENC). Established in 1989, it is essentially a set of subjects and standards set by the Department for Education. Wales and Scotland have their own national curriculums.It is used by both primary and secondary schools to make sure all students get a balanced education, learn the same things and can be tested in a uniform way. It's not designed to be prescriptive though, and there is deliberately time and space built in to explore other subjects and ideas.The main assessments take place at the end of primary school (SATS) and again at age 16 with GCSE or IGCSE exams.The curriculum takes students from ages 3 to 18. It is divided into distinct learning and subject area blocks:
  • Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS): seven statutory areas of learning cover children from 3 to 5 years old in nursery and reception classes
  • Key Stage One: subject areas covering primary years one and two (ages five to seven)
  • Key Stage Two: subject areas covering primary years three to six (ages seven to eleven)
  • Key Stage Three: moves into secondary school, subject areas covering years 7 to 9 (ages 11 to 14)
  • Key Stage Four: subject areas years 10 and 11 (ages 14 to 16), when most students will take an average of eight GCSE or IGSE exams.
  • For years 12 and 13 (ages 16 to 18) there is no set national curriculum as students work towards taking three or four A levels in subjects of their choice.
By breaking the curriculum up into chunks, teachers can monitor a student’s progress and students can see their own pathway. The curriculum is studied in both state and private schools. The latter are not obliged to follow it, but most do as private schools must be registered with the government and inspected by the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (OFSTED).At primary level, the curriculum is broadly based, with provision for PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) education alongside compulsory subjects including English, maths, science, art and design, geography, history, computing, design and technology, PE and music.At the end of primary school, students sit National Curriculum tests (sometimes called SATS), which cover reading, spelling, grammar, punctuation and maths.Secondary education is covered by Key Stages Three (KS3) and Four (KS4). Compulsory subjects in KS3 are English, maths, science, art and design, computing, design and technology, languages, geography, history, music and PE. Citizenship is also added as a new compulsory subject for KS3 learners. In KS4, which covers the two GCSE years, things change to allow some choice of subjects. English, maths, science, citizenship and computing are compulsory, but students can choose other subjects to make up an average of eight or nine.Many international schools choose international GCSE (IGCSE) instead of the traditional exams, which are designed for international learners, although these are increasingly popular in UK schools too. Mougins School on the French Riviera takes a hybrid approach: “We have a mix of the two, some GCSE and some IGCSE, depending on which syllabus suits our international cohort best,” says head of school, James Wellings.

The British curriculum in an international setting

International schools often use the British curriculum as a framework and personalise it to create the best fit.“Most international schools will adapt the curriculum to reflect the context in which they are operating and the needs of their students,” says Dr Fiona Rogers of COBIS. “The English curriculum works particularly well in schools that adopt a holistic approach, offering a range of opportunities to develop in and out of the classroom.”That’s the case at Mougins School on the French Riviera, where the British curriculum is used as a framework at the through-train school educating students from 3 to 18, and incorporating  55 nationalities. “We use it as a basis to create an international curriculum to give our students pathways to go anywhere in the world,” says James Wellings. “The beauty of being an international school is you can incorporate other things into the curriculum if you see them working somewhere else.”At Marlborough College in Malaysia, the British curriculum is trusted for its combination of breadth and specialisation, but it is enriched with a global perspective to reflect the student body of over 40 nationalities.“In both pre-prep and prep the English national curriculum is enriched and influenced by the international nature of the school and physical and cultural surrounds,” says the school’s master, Simon Burbury. “We offer Mandarin, Spanish, French and Bahasa Malay as foreign languages and our campus has its own lake and organic farm, which is an ideal way to learn about Malaysian plants and wildlife.”At Rugby School Japan, staff studied the curriculum of different examination boards for IGCSE and A levels and selected those where the curriculum was best suited to an international student body. “For example, in geography, this might mean studying physical geography in Asia rather than the UK,” says Tony Darby.Cambridge, the world’s largest provider of education programmes with 10,000 schools across 160 countries, designs its programmes based on the ENC to be flexible: “Our curricula are adaptable and both internationally recognised and locally relevant,” says the company’s Ian Harris.According to the ISC, this type of hybrid curriculum is a growing trend in international schools. Almost 30% of students in international schools study a hybrid curriculum, which includes the English curriculum.At Tanglin Trust in Singapore, the hybrid curriculum includes offering the IB alongside A levels. “We are the oldest British International School in Southeast Asia and Tanglin's academic traditions and approach to teaching are grounded in an enhanced English National Curriculum," says Tanglin’s Amy Huberman. "However, there are many aspects of school life that have a global focus and are contextualised to our location in South East Asia. We are the only school in Singapore offering both A levels and the IB Diploma, allowing students to choose the best pathway for them.”

Maintaining quality

British international schools are not required to be inspected. However, the Department for Education has a system of voluntary inspection, the BSO scheme, which allows schools meeting its standards to be accredited and listed on the Department for Education’s website.Many schools offering the British curriculum are members of the Council of British International Schools (COBIS), which represents 400 schools internationally. It provides quality assurance, lobbying for members, continuing professional development and resources, and works closely with the Department for Education. COBIS schools are quality assured to a high level, either through COBIS Patron’s Accreditation and Compliance scheme, or through an external inspection process.In addition, other regional organisations represent and support British schools. These include British Schools in the Middle East (BSME) and the Federation of British International Schools in Asia (FOBISEA).

The pre-university years

The British curriculum leads to A levels in the final two years of school, a qualification recognised and trusted by universities around the world. Up to 80 different subjects are available at A level and students study three or four with maths, psychology, biology, chemistry and history being the most popular.According to 2023 ISC Research, A levels are the most popular exit qualification offered by 35% of international schools with 16 to 18 provision, with the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IBDP) following closely behind at 28%.“Students who pursue A levels can specialise in subject areas they enjoy and excel in,” says Rugby Japan’s principal, Tony Darby. “Our curriculum also supports character development and we take a broad view of the skills needed to be future-ready, not just academically successful.”This includes the Rugby Learner Profile, which sits at the heart of the school’s educational philosophy. “It encourages students to be enquiring, communicative, globally minded, reflective and resilient,” says Tony Darby. Rugby Japan students also participate in a robust co-curricular programme incorporating personal and academic enrichment, sport, arts, leadership and competition.As the IB increases in popularity, some educators believe its broader content, including the extended essay (EE) and Community Action and Service programme (CAS), better equip students for university and an ever-changing job market.Supporters of the British curriculum don’t agree: they say the depth of A level study combined with a full co-curricular programme delivers the same all-round education.Increasing numbers of students (over 30,000) also take the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) alongside their A levels. Similar to the IB’s extended essay, the essay is a deep dive into a subject not covered by other A level subjects and refines research, planning and evaluation skills. The curriculum at Mougins School in France emphasises critical thinking and independent research skills akin to the IB. Through coursework and project-based learning, particularly in subjects like English, history and the sciences, students develop the ability to analyse information critically and apply it creatively.“With a broad range of subjects offered at the IGCSE and A level stages, our curriculum provides a comprehensive education spanning arts, sciences, humanities and technical fields. This diversity prepares them for a spectrum of future careers in the same way as the IB,” says the school’s Lise Cudin.Cambridge offers over 60 subjects as part of its international A and AS levels programme, designed for international schools and recognised and valued by universities worldwide. “These include inter-disciplinary subjects such as Global Perspectives and research,” says Cambridge’s director of brand and advocacy for international education, Ian Harris. “Subjects can be studied in any combination and give students choices they may not have with diploma-style approaches that mandate particular combinations of subjects.“Our curriculum helps students develop deep subject knowledge, conceptual understanding and higher order thinking skills. Not only do universities really value this, but it also helps students thrive and be ready for work.”The last world goes to the students: “Our alumni tell us their British education allowed them to move seamlessly to new schools and education systems, as well as preparing them well for university and the world of work,” says Helen Olds, director of schools for the British International School of Riyadh group.

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