Report Offers Window Into International Schools’ Curricula

Staff Writer

A new report looks at which curricular models are most widely used in international private schools, and finds that the globally oriented Cambridge curriculum is dominant, followed by other courses of study developed in Britain, as well as the United States.

The Cambridge international curriculum is used by 4,208 international schools. Its usage has jumped from six years ago, when it was used in just 982 schools, according to a new report by ISC Research, a U.K.-based organization that studies the international school market.

The second most popular type of curriculum comprises other U.K.-oriented academic resources, which are used by 3,491 schools, a slight increase over their usage in 2015.

U.S.-oriented curricula came in third, with usage by 2,208 international schools, up from 1,927 schools five years ago, according to ISC. Those American-based curricula would include the Common Core State Standards — the state-generated academic guidelines that were developed more than a decade ago and were widely adopted before running into political opposition.

ISC says that most international schools around the world — and all the international schools that the organization tracks — deliver all or a significant proportion of instruction and conversation in English.

The U.S.-oriented courses of study also include Advanced Placement, and “any curricula based on a U.S. curriculum model,” said ISC Research spokesperson Anne Keeling.

International schools’ appetite for curricula have changed over time, ISC says in the report, which represents a range of interviews and surveys with senior admissions and marketing senior staff at a wide sampling of international schools conducted by the field research team last year. International schools today are much more likely to offer an international curriculum or an adapted version of a national curriculum than they were previously. In the past, international private schools have more heavily favored curricula developed for use in individual countries.

International in philosophy and approach, the Cambridge curriculum is broken into four age segments: primary, lower secondary, upper secondary, and pre-university. The curriculum was developed in 1858.

The Cambridge curriculum’s rising popularity is based in part on its role in preparing students for exit examinations, and the content flexibility that it allows a school, Sam Fraser, research director for ISC Research, told EdWeek Market Brief in an email.

Adoption of International Baccalaureate curricula also increased from 1,337 to 1,797 schools between 2015 and 2020.

“International standards are often perceived as higher than those of local education offerings by parents, and in many cases governments, too, some of which use international curricula as a way of elevating their own school systems,” Fraser said.

But COVID-19 has made it more difficult for international schools to run the IB program, even in person with social distancing measures, as “collaboration and exploration” are key parts of that program, Fraser said.

Exam cancelations have had a big impact on course content, and some IB course components have been canceled altogether during campus closures, he said.

Curriculum Seen as Key to School Selection

The report says that 83 percent of admissions staff surveyed from 175 schools around the world stated they believe curriculum is very important to most parents when selecting an international school, while 17 percent felt it is somewhat important, and none said they believe curriculum is not a consideration for the majority of parents.

International curricula are also popular in international private schools and among governments because parents believe those instructional approaches pave higher education pathways and help their children be accepted into universities in those countries, Fraser said.

“This is not necessarily the case,” he said. “Good universities and colleges today recognize a range of globally reputable curricula and examinations.”

Often, the desire among certain international schools for a U.K.- or U.S.-focused curriculum comes from familiarity to whichever of those countries has the closest affiliation, Fraser said.

There are also differences in the appetite for curricula even within the same region. The Middle East generally favors a British curriculum, but in some nations in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, there’s a relatively high demand for a U.S. curriculum, Fraser said.

International schools in Vietnam and some other countries in East Asia, particularly South Korea, prefer a U.S. curriculum, Fraser noted, while Thailand and Malaysia favor a U.K. curriculum.

The report calls on international schools to educate parents on curricular content, including how curriculum develops knowledge, skills and understanding. These schools have a responsibility to do this, ISC asserts, because many parents have limited understanding of the various elements of a curriculum, or are significantly influenced by brands or national curricula without fully knowing what the instructional approaches will mean for their children.

See also: