International Schools – what are they and how do they work?

International schools offer qualifications that are recognised globally, and contrary to popular belief, they’re not just for families that move around a lot!

guide to international schools
Cluey Learning Tuesday, 19 April 2022

International schools are an increasingly popular choice for parents worldwide, as they offer a unique perspective on global education. They were originally founded to accommodate expatriate communities and they still do, but many international schools now host a mix of local and international students.

The main benefit of an international curriculum is that it equips children with education and qualifications that are globally recognised, and they can move seamlessly from one school to another if your family moves to another city or country.

While they still cater to international families for the most part, you might want to choose an international school for your kids if you’re looking for a curriculum or qualifications that may not be available through the local school system.

Whether you plan to stay in one place for the remainder of your children’s education or foresee your family moving several times before they graduate, knowing that their education will be applicable and transferable to other schools and universities is a big win.

Preparing for a global future

Because of their international communities, international schools teach children an understanding of other cultures, nationalities, religions, languages and universal values. These transformative, world-focused learning experiences are excellent building blocks for children who will eventually be immersed in an international career or lifestyle.

In most international schools the main language is English. However, they are not specifically schools for the teaching of English as a foreign language. In saying that, most international schools have many students who are English language learners. 

Many international schools are also offering world languages which can range from French, Spanish, and German to Chinese and Russian. The official language of the host country, if other than English, is often taught as well.

If you live abroad, learning the local language can be a great benefit to your child’s learning, not just in terms of the obvious one of learning a second (or third!) language, but also in being able to fully engage in the local culture.

The benefits of being multilingual are abundant and well-researched. Not only is it good for the brain and highly valued on the job market, it also opens up a whole range interesting cultural and social opportunities.

Which curriculum to choose

One of the first steps in selecting a school that’s a great fit for your family is understanding the curriculum they follow. There are several options to choose from, and each education system provides unique benefits to learners based on the specific and implicit goals of the educational framework.

If you are still in the process of selecting the best option for your child, it may be helpful to know whether the schools you are considering provide the best possible outcomes based on the curriculum they follow. Let’s look at the options.

International Baccalaureate (IB)

Founded in Geneva, Switzerland in 1968, the International Baccalaureate (IB) is a holistic international education curriculum that has been implemented in many international schools’ classrooms. The IB learner profile provides a long-term vision of education and has a set of ideals that can inspire, motivate, and focus the work of schools and teachers.

Depending on the programmes taken, the IB curriculum is designed for students aged three all the way to 19. It includes the IB Primary Years Programme, Middle Years Programme and Diploma Programme, and focuses on developing students to prepare them on a global stage.

The Primary Years Programme (PYP) for pupils aged 3 to 12 focuses on the development of the whole child in the classroom and in the world outside.

The Middle Years Programme (MYP) for students aged 11 to 16 provides a framework of academic challenge and life skills through embracing and going beyond traditional school subjects.

The Diploma Programme for students aged 16 to 19 is a two-year curriculum that meets the needs of motivated students and leads to a qualification that is recognised by leading universities around the world. The IB curriculum is recognised in 75 countries and in over 2,000 universities globally.

Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE)

Cambridge IGCSE is the world’s largest provider of international education programmes and qualifications for 5- to 19-year-olds. The curriculum is flexible, challenging and inspiring, culturally sensitive yet international in approach. The curriculum is international in philosophy, it can be tailored to local contexts.

Cambridge programmes combine an emphasis on mastering subjects in depth with the development skills for study and work in the future. It offers 70+ subjects at Cambridge IGCSE and Cambridge O Level, and 55 subjects at Cambridge International AS & A Level. This allows Cambridge schools to build a curriculum which offers real choice, both of subject and subject combination. Another unique feature of Cambridge Global Perspectives is the dedicated Online Learning area.

More than 10,000 schools in over 160 countries follow the Cambridge international curriculum. The four stages lead seamlessly from primary to secondary and pre-university years. Each stage – Cambridge Primary, Cambridge Lower Secondary, Cambridge Upper Secondary and Cambridge Advanced – builds on the learners’ development from the previous one but can also be offered separately.

British Curriculum (IGCSE)

The British Curriculum is one of the most well-known and highly regarded curricula in the world of international education. It’s the most popular curricula in English-speaking international schools and recognised by schools, academies, universities, and employers worldwide.

Also known the National Curriculum for England, this system of education stresses creativity, critical thinking and flexibility. The British Curriculum includes a series of measurable and achievable goals, each designed to build on what went before while preparing the student for their future work. It includes regular benchmarking and assessment, and results in an International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) in AS and A level qualifications.

It is uniquely suited for students who plan to attend a British university or families that often move. However, even if your family has no plans of living in the UK, the British Curriculum still offers an excellent education framework with a decades-long record of success in schools around the world.

American Curriculum

Unlike the United Kingdom, the United States does not have a single, centralised curriculum. In the USA, each state has its own department of education, financing systems, hiring practices for teachers, rules on student attendance, standards, tests and scheduling.

Despite not having a standard education across states, the American curriculum is popular. In fact, it is the third most widely used curriculum in international schools after the British National Curriculum and the International Baccalaureate.

The American Curriculum provides an education from pre-kindergarten to Grade 12 and is divided into three stages: Elementary School, Middle School and High School. The core subjects at each level are English language, arts, mathematics, science and social studies. In addition, students are exposed to visual and performing arts, foreign languages, physical education and technology.

Many non-American families opt to use the US curriculum because it helps to familiarise their children with the American education system, preparing them for attending a college in the United States.

Australian Curriculum

The Australian Curriculum was introduced in the 1940s and was modelled after the British Curriculum that strongly focused on content. Today, it is a flexible and challenging curriculum that meets the needs of a mobile and globally focused, multi-cultural community.

It is divided into eight Key Learning Areas (KLAs) which are English, Mathematics, Science, Health and Physical Education, Humanities and Social Sciences, The Arts, Technologies and Languages. Assessments are continuous throughout the school period and include mid-year and year-end formal exams. In the final years of schooling, assessment is divided into two components; 50 percent is examination-based where the other 50 percent is assignment-based.

There’s also the Victorian Curriculum, which is administered by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA). The Victorian Curriculum is structured across levels of achievement rather than years of schooling. Also, a student is assessed through standards, which are what the students can do at each level. These levels and standards are applied to students from Foundation to Year 10.

But wait, there’s more

Other options for international tuition include the French Curriculum, Indian Curriculum, and the Ontario (Canada) Curriculum. 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.

There’s great diversity in international schools, and what’s right for your child and your family will depend on the composition of the student and faculty body, how the school is governed, and what curricular offerings it has, among many other variables.

The curriculum, in large part, sets international schools apart from each other, attracting staff as well as students, and defining the school ethos to some extent. Today, there are close to 11,000 verified international schools that educate around 6 million students worldwide, and the market looks set to continue to grow at a healthy rate.

Applications, fees and costs

Tuition tends to be expensive based on local standards, but it’s the high standard of learning, the smaller class sizes, and first-rate facilities that outweigh the cost for many parents. International school fees vary wildly across the globe. The International Schools Database makes it easier for expats to find, research and compare the best international schools around the world.

Admission and enrolment procedures vary from school to school and space is often limited. Many international schools have waiting lists, and some won’t allow children to join mid-way through the academic year. Make sure to check the application procedure of the school you have chosen for your child early on. Make a note of application deadlines and any documentation needed, and ensure you have all the paperwork prepared well in advance.

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