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How to choose the right international school curriculum for expat kids

Updated 26 Oct 2022

A curriculum defines a school. Whether it's the International Baccalaureate, American or British systems, or the International Primary Curriculum, the curricula are what set these schools apart from each other, attracting new intake and new staff as well as defining, in large part, the school ethos. With more options available than ever before and greater freedom and independence from governments, these distinctions are becoming more and more significant.

Meeting student needs

For international schools, high pupil turnover makes the choice of curriculum particularly crucial – it's not simply an issue of definition. Especially in schools with a large intake of expat children, where a significant proportion of the student body can change from one year to the next, selecting curricula that meet the immediate needs of these transitory children is one of the biggest challenges a school has to face. 

Today, many international schools are selecting curricula that address the global demands and personal development needs of their students as well as their academic learning requirements. By choosing curricula that focus on these needs, schools are putting learning at the centre of their development. 

Instead of simply adopting a single curriculum style, pioneering schools are mixing and matching curricula to meet the exact learning needs of their students. Academic needs may be a major factor, but a more holistic learning approach (which incorporates personal, community and international learning) is now considered just as crucial to help prepare children, wherever they may live, for the challenges they will face as adults. 

Primary-years programmes in international schools

Two common primary school curricula include the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) and the International Baccalaureate's Primary Years Programme (IB PYP). These provide an enquiry-based, thematic, cross-curricular and creative approach to learning that is relevant for both national and international schools. Both provide some structure but neither are as prescriptive for teachers as the English National Curriculum, although this is still a popular choice in many international schools.

International Primary Curriculum

Many primary teachers and leaders like the learning process of the IPC and its structured framework, which includes creative learning tasks that allow for flexibility in order to make it most relevant for the children and the location. The IPC provides opportunities for teachers in different schools and in different countries to collaborate on learning, creating real life experiences for international learning.

International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme

The IB PYP is based on self- and group-initiated research tasks. The PYP provides a learning framework and gives teachers the responsibility to develop their own line of enquiry. All the foundation subjects are incorporated, with maths and English taught separately. Some teachers like the lack of structure and the ‘blank sheet’ for creativity; other teachers find this a challenge. PYP teachers need talent, experience, organisation and good training. 

National curricula

Some international schools follow a version of the American, British, Canadian or Australian curricula. The Australian curriculum is often modelled because of its progressive, creative approach to children’s learning. 

However, national systems may not be completely relevant for children in international settings and might not have an international focus to the learning. A British international school located in the Middle East, for instance, may well have some British expats but will also have children from many other nationalities including local children too. For these students, learning about the Great Fire of London or the Tudors (both included in the English National Curriculum) is not relevant, nor appropriate. This can create a situation where children become disengaged and can even feel excluded. As a result, international schools offering a national curriculum will have to adapt the curriculum to ensure it is relevant for all their students.

Middle-years programmes in international schools

Until recently, there have been very few curriculum options for the middle years and, as a result, many schools have created their own. In more recent years, high-quality options have been introduced. This has included the IB’s Middle Years Programme (IB MYP), which is designed for 11 to 16-year-olds, or the International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC), which is a follow-on to the IPC and has been created to meet the specific learning needs of 11 to 14-year-olds.

Both the IB MYP and the IMYC provide a rigorous, thematic and creative approach to learning that follows a similar structural framework to their primary partners. Currently only the IB MYP is available for over 14s, meaning those studying the IMYC will usually move onto the IGCSE once moving to secondary school.

Secondary-years programmes in international schools

The IGCSE (which is the international version of the GCSE) is the exam delivered by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) for international students at age 16. Many international schools hold the IGCSE examination, whether they follow the IB MYP or adapted versions of national curricula. CIE has recently introduced its own international curriculum, which is designed to work alongside existing curricula, allowing a child’s learning to be more appropriate for the IGCSE examination.

Several international schools, especially if they have a significant number of local students, also run the national curriculum for their country of location alongside their international secondary curriculum.

IB Diploma

For students who stay in education beyond 16 years of age, a significant number of international schools and some national schools around the world now offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme. This is a highly academic programme with a well-rounded approach to subjects, making the IB Diploma highly respected among many of the best universities in the world.


Another popular choice for international schools is the international A-Level provided by Cambridge International Examinations. The international A-Level is adapted from the English national A-Level to be more appropriate to international education. It is usual for a student to achieve between three and four A-Levels over a two-year period, each in a different subject. A-Levels offer a student the chance to focus on the subjects that will be more appropriate for their chosen university course and are held in high regard by most universities across the world.

Final word

There's a lot to consider when choosing an international school and, ultimately, parents will have to decide what kind of curriculum best suits their family's needs. It's worth bearing in mind that, while prestige is worth considering, it shouldn't be the sole reason for choosing a particular curriculum, as properly accredited international schools will generally offer high-quality education across the board. Some children are best suited to dynamic enquiry-based learning, while others thrive in a more traditional academic environment. With so many options available, parents are bound to find a good fit for their family.

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