Exams & Curriculum

How to choose the right curriculum for your child

Fiona McKenzie, Head of Education, Carfax Education

One of the many benefits for international families is the variety of curriculums and school experiences on offer to them at international schools. But while this variety is a bonus of ex-pat living, it can also be quite overwhelming when deciding what will be right for your child. 


The national curriculum of England and Wales, known universally as the British curriculum, is a well-known and internationally recognised school system. It is one of the most widely taught curriculums internationally which means it is widely understood and acknowledged as a recognised pathway for students keen to pursue university courses in the UK after school. 

The UK curriculum is very structured, and goal focussed, with a regular testing system embedded at key points of the curriculum. The first formal assessments, SATs, take place when pupils are in Year 2, at seven years old, and again in the final year of primary school, Year 6, when the children are aged 11. SATs focus on reading, writing and maths and are used to assess a child’s ability against age related expectations, as laid out in the UK’s National Curriculum. They help assess a child’s academic strengths and weaknesses and where they sit in relation to peers. They may be used to put children into sets to ensure they get the support they need at each stage going forward. 

While there is a strong focus on the core subjects, this is set within a broader curriculum, aimed at developing well-rounded students. Pupils will also study citizenship, aiming to help young people understand how to play a full and active part in society, as well as personal, social and health education (PSHE).

The first focused subject choices are made when starting in Year 10, when students are around 15 years old. English, maths, and science are compulsory at this stage, along with the choice of up to seven additional subjects selected according to a pupil’s interests and ambitions. Subjects on offer will depend on each school but range from additional sciences, languages, the arts, IT, and sport. 

In the final two years of secondary education students will most commonly study A Levels, where they can select up to four subjects of their choice in the first year and generally continue with three in the second year. A Levels are offered in a broad range of subjects from the traditional subjects such as maths, science, humanities, classics, and modern languages to subjects such as art, dance, sport and design related subjects. Some of these courses will be an extension of those which have been studied at GCSE level and others can be new subjects such as economics and history of art.


A top choice for students with ambitions of studying at a US college, the American High School Diploma is also increasingly recognised by international universities. The American system is a popular choice for international schools, and children who are moving around on a regular basis will have the benefit of consistency when seeking new schools in different cities around the world. 

While the US Department of Education sets standards and guidelines, there is no ‘national curriculum’ for American schools as there is for UK and many EU countries. This offers more flexibility and creative freedom to teachers who can tailor subjects to the needs of pupils. 

The US system offers a broader curriculum to a higher level. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school the core subjects at each level are English language, arts, mathematics, science and social studies Sports and creative pursuits are also prioritised focused on a well-rounded education. 

Students are tested on a frequent basis, with reports every quarter co-ordinating all scores together for a annual average, known as the GPA (grade point average). There are quizzes, tests, group presentations and projects throughout the year with mid-terms and finals. This takes the pressure off the heavily weighted final exams in the UK and EU systems and puts more of a focus on continuous learning rather than simply preparing for external exams. A higher weighting is given to certain subjects meaning students pursuing more academic routes can obtain a higher average than pupils who have made different subject choices.

The American system is designed to fully prepare pupils for further education and college and in high-school Advance Placement or AP courses give students the opportunity to study university-level courses which gives them an advantage going into further education. 

International Baccalaureate

The IB is an increasingly popular choice in international schools, as this globally recognised curriculum offers students the chance to study a broader set of subjects. With a focus on academic excellence and extensive extra-curricular enrichment, the IB is a challenging programme that meets the needs of highly motivated students. 

With its Primary Years Programme (PYP), the IB programme prepares students from a young age to be active participants in an interconnected, globalised world. It fosters skills such as critical thinking and international-mindedness and as the curriculum moves through the Middle Years Programme (MYP) to the final two-year Diploma programme it instils an understanding of humanity and shared guardianship of the planet and the desire to help to create a better and more peaceful world.  

The curriculum is made up of the six core subject groups: studies in language & literature; individuals & societies; maths; science; language acquisition; and the arts. This approach encourages interdisciplinary exploration, not just in academic subjects, but across all studies. 

The IB final assessments are a combination of exams and course work involving independent research, which is excellent experience for those looking to pursue higher education. The Diploma includes a Theory of Knowledge course, where students are expected to reflect on nature of knowledge and how we claim to know; the Extended Essay (EE), an independent and self-directed 4,000-word research paper and CAS (creativity, action, service) where students are encouraged to contribute to the community in a variety of ways. 

When selecting a school, it is important to consider which curriculum is going to be the best fit for your child; what will suit their learning style and how transferable is the curriculum if you were to move again or to return to your home country. It is also worth bearing in mind that although the curriculum is important, it is only part of what makes a school. The essence of a school is its ethos and value set, the quality of teaching and the leadership team and the learning environment that they create together. Only if this core is right will the curriculum be delivered with enthusiasm, dedication and successfully embraced by all children in the school community. 

Carfax Education is a leading global education group, providing expert consultancy, tutoring and homeschooling services across the world, working with families to secure exceptional opportunities in education and offering specialist support through Carfax Consultants, Carfax Tutors, The Online School and Carfax College, Oxford, UK. For more information visit www.carfax-education.com 

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