Understanding Curriculums

By Ariana Crisafulli 2019-04-29 14:46:10

Moving to another country can have many challenges. You’ll have to figure out how to bring all your stuff to Shanghai (all in one piece) and successfully through Chinese customs. You’ll need to get your visa sorted. You must figure out where to live. And most importantly, you’ll need to decide where to send your children to school. 

Many of you who are reading this have most likely been through all the trials and tribulations of moving to Shanghai, and if you have older children, we’ll assume that you covered the education question before you arrived. But for those of you who have moved here with a teensy tiny baby, or for those of you who came here single “for only a year” 10 years ago and are now having a family in your adopted city, you’ll soon have a big decision to make regarding education. Luckily, we live in a city where the standard of international education is high, but sometimes that makes the choice even trickier. How to choose when all your options are fabulous?

Some families who move to Shanghai with older children choose schools that offer a similar curriculum to that of the schools in their home country. This allows for an easy transition for the students who may already be familiar with the curriculum, and perhaps an easier transition to university if they want to pursue a degree in their country of origin. With international schools from Korea to the UK in Shanghai, finding a school with your home country’s curriculum is not difficult to accomplish. In Shanghai, however, you also get the added benefit of an international perspective even at a school that teaches a particular national curriculum. 

If you’re starting a family in Shanghai, choice of school depends more on preference than on origin. You not only get to choose which kind of national (or international) curriculum you would like your child to benefit from, you also get the advantage of choosing the education style and how your children will be assessed.

Ask yourself these questions: what emphasis do I place on my child learning Mandarin? Do I want my child to follow a more general education or should they specialize in a small range of subjects at the end of secondary school? Should they be assessed by international standards or by national standards that transfer internationally? While there are many more things to consider when choosing a school (and a curriculum) for your child, this gives you a small glimpse into the array of choices you have in an international setting.



While all foreign schools in Shanghai are international by definition, and all of them provide an international perspective, there are some that subscribe to a specific national curriculum and offer national assessments. Other schools use a research-based framework that incorporates curriculums from multiple countries and are authorized to offer internationally-recognized examinations and assessments. There is such a vast array of academic choice in Shanghai that it would be impossible to cover them all in this article. However, to give you some idea of the kinds of choices that these international schools offer, we cover two national curriculums (British and American) and define what an international curriculum is. We also give you an overview of some of the most widely accepted assessments in the world including IGCSEs, A Levels, AP, and the International Baccalaureate. 

The British Curriculum

Dulwich students benefit from a British curriculum with an international mindset.


While many international schools that hail from the UK brand themselves as British schools, the reality is that they are most likely teaching the English national curriculum that is taught in England and Wales (as opposed to the entire UK). If you choose to send your child or children to a British international school in Shanghai, the school will most likely follow the guidelines laid out by the Education Reform Act. It defines the subjects taught, the knowledge, skills and understanding required in each subject, the level of ability pupils are expected to achieve in each subject, and the way pupils’ progress is assessed and reported.

The English curriculum is separated into an Early Years Foundation Stage followed by five Key Stages leading up to General Certificate of Education (GCSE) exams in Years 10 and 11. However, in Shanghai, students attending a British school will most likely sit the IGCSEs, which are an international equivalent of the British GCSE. Before students choose their IGCSE subjects in Year 9, they must study educational basics such as English, mathematics, separate sciences, at least one modern foreign language, and a Humanity subject. “A range of Arts and multiple combinations then complete the full menu of options,” explains Ms. Alison Derbyshire, the Deputy Head of Senior School at Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong. Because British schools in Shanghai are also international, they cater to a diverse student body as well. At Dulwich, for example, which has over 40 student nationalities, there are several individualized pathways available to help cater for the wide range of language skills – this includes three Mandarin pathways – and for the different entry points of a typically transitory student population. 

To accommodate for the international aspect of educating in Shanghai, many international schools, like Dulwich, tend to splice their national curriculum with other international standards. Alison says about Dulwich, “Our curriculum is enhanced by additional, internally-examined courses in Service Learning, Film, and Business Entrepreneurship, for example. These are intended to enrich and broaden students’ perspectives, offer greater flexibility of learning opportunities that are not always recognized by formal assessment outcomes, and also provide a fuller grounding for the IBDP (International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme) curriculum in Years 12 and 13.”

The British curriculum is also defined by A-levels that students take in Years 12 and 13. In the UK, these are the examinations that matter most when universities review student candidates. They represent a more specific field of study than the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) or the American Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum. 

However, many international schools in Shanghai, including Dulwich, offer the IBDP in place of the A-levels, as the IBDP represents an international standard for academic assessment, and many universities accept this standard worldwide.

The American Curriculum

American schools, like Concordia, prefer a well-rounded approach to education rather than specialization.


Compared to the English National Curriculum which is highly standardized, the American curriculum is far more varied across the country. With 50 states spread over 9.8 million square kilometers, adjusting the curriculum by region can sometimes be necessary. For this reason, the American curriculum is determined by the state it is taught in rather than by the country as a whole, allowing for more flexibility. 

However, all American schools assess their students by credits compiled over the course of their studies. American high school is generally four years, beginning in freshman year (13 or 14 years old) and ending in their senior year (17 or 18 years old). States choose the minimum number of credits that students must achieve to graduate and the minimum grade point average (GPA) on a scale from 0 to 4 (although students may also earn higher than a 4.0 GPA with extra credits and weighted grades. Students earn credits for each class they take and receive their GPA based on their academic performance. 

Unlike British schools, most American schools do not focus on specialization of certain subjects in their final two years of schooling, preferring a well-rounded general education of all core subjects.


Genevieve Ermeling, the Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning at Concordia International School Shanghai explains the subjects that American students are expected to take:

“Students will have reading, writing, math, social studies and science classes – though the younger grades (K-3) will prioritize literacy and math. Students also take PE classes and some schools have art and music classes as well. These classes used to be staples in all schools. Concordia still prioritizes a wide variety of learning for students. As students move into the high school years, college-bound students will have 4 years of English, 3-4 years of math, 3 years of science, and 2-3 years of social studies. There is usually a 2-year PE requirement (1/2 year of health) and a fine arts requirement as well. Science would include a physical science class and a life science class.”

In order to achieve the minimum number of credits to graduate high school and to gain a well-rounded education, American students must also take elective classes that teach subjects outside the core curriculum. These classes could include things like fine arts classes, science or social studies classes, or unique classes such as woodworking, accounting, drafting, robotics, etc.

However, like all international schools in Shanghai, schools who follow a national curriculum normally bring in an international component. 

“Concordia uses the framework of the American curriculum with a more global focus, including an intentional focus on China. We desire for our students to learn about the country where they live while attending Concordia, as well as learn to see the world through a global lens. Students learn about various regions around the world and develop the skills to examine ideas and issues from multiple perspectives. Since some of our curriculum are programs from the US, there is an emphasis on US culture, though our teachers seek to make learning relevant in every classroom, bringing in students’ voices and experiences into the classroom and creating a multicultural experience,” says Genevieve.


The International Curriculum

Some schools, like YCIS, eschew a particular national curriculum in favor of a completely international one.


While all schools in Shanghai can be considered international schools, there are some that do not subscribe to specific national standards, preferring to borrow from many countries when building their academic framework.

Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (YCIS), for example, offers a unique curriculum based on internationally-recognized learning standards from the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia, aligned with best educational practices and tailored specifically to an international context. According to Terence Dayes, the Secondary Vice Principal at YCIS Puxi, international schools find similarity with schools that teach a national curriculum in that they teach the core competencies such as mathematics, science, humanities (known as social studies in US schools), physical education and of course languages. What separates an international curriculum from a national curriculum, he says, is the emphasis placed on the development of two or more world languages across all learning stages. For instance, YCIS promotes competency in both English and Mandarin throughout all learning stages. Defining an international curriculum, Terence says:

“An international curriculum should always be judged by its commitment to inter-culturalism, international mindedness and global citizenship. Many ‘international schools’ operate as national schools within an international context and provide the same curriculum - complete with examples, case studies, learning tasks and textbooks as what one would encounter in a local government school or private school at home. An international curriculum considers multiple perspectives, is globally conscious and ensures that students develop a sense of inquiry, understanding, compassion and knowledge to enable them to become internationally literate.”


International schools, not being tied to any particular curriculum, are neither tied to any specific examination. They have the freedom to offer their students the GCSE, the A-levels, the AP examinations, or the IBDP. YCIS offers their students the IGCSE as well as the IBDP.


International General Certificate of Education (IGCSE)

While any school can offer the International Baccalaureate, for international schools like YCIS, this program is an obvious and excellent choice.


The IGCSE is the international equivalent to the British GCSE curriculum, and is the principle assessment used to determine secondary school competency. At the end of their IGCSE studies, students take the relevant exams in Years 10 and 11. After their IGCSE exams, students may begin to study their A Level subjects. In some international schools, depending on the examinations they offer, IGCSE exams must be taken prior to the IBDP. 

Starting in Year 9, students begin to narrow their field of study in preparation of the exams. The official IGCSE curriculum offers 70 subjects available for study and examination, including 30 languages. Schools normally do not offer all 70 subjects, but instead choose a range of IGCSE subjects they think their students will be interested in. Students can choose to take up to 16 IGCSEs in different subjects, but this course load is usually too burdensome for most students. The majority of students take around 9 or 10 IGCSEs. 

Ms. Alison Derbyshire of Dulwich Pudong tells us that “the IGCSE is recognized by universities world-wide: over 10,000 schools in more than 160 countries follow the Cambridge international curriculum. The range of subjects and the quality of the specifications ensure that students’ academic learning has breadth and depth at this important stage of their education.”


A Levels

Although most British schools offer A Levels, Dulwich Pudong prefers the IB.


In the UK, A Levels immediately follow the GCSEs. While students normally take around 9 or 10 GCSEs, A Levels narrow the focus of study to three subjects in Years 11 and 12. A Levels are not required to exit secondary school, however they are necessary for applying to universities. Along with the IBDP and the American SAT, A Levels are a universal assessment for universities to recognize potential student candidates. 

To take the A Levels, students must have at least five GCSEs at grades A* to C and at least grade B in the specific subject(s) you want to study. Students will study their A Level subjects for two years before sitting their exams. When students sit their exams at the end of Year 12, they are assessed on scores ranging from A-E and given a uniform mark scale as well, which is scored out of 600. 

In their last two years of secondary school, students will focus solely on their three A Level subjects. If you and your family think that a school that offers A Levels is the best option, it is important that the student receive guidance that will help them choose which A Levels to take based on their interests and their strengths. When taking A Level courses, students have more time to specialize in subject areas of their choice and to go more in depth with these subjects. A Levels are especially beneficial for students who are uniquely passionate about certain areas of study.


Because A Levels are so specialized, they often correlate with the field of study that students intend to pursue in university and later on in their career. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) gives this advice when choosing A Levels:

• Look at what you are likely to enjoy and be good at. If you enjoy a subject or have an ability in it already, you are more likely to do well.

• Are there any particular subjects and/or grades you may need? If you have a particular career, job, or further study in mind, you may need to choose specific A levels in order to meet entry requirements.

• How open do you want to keep your future study and career choices?


Advanced Placement (AP)

Schools like Concordia choose to offer AP classes because 85% of selective institutions report that a student's AP experience positively impacts admissions decisions.


Advanced Placement is a program run by the US-based College Board. It offers a more rigorous course of study than non-AP programs and allows students who take it to gain university credits while still in high school. While AP classes are not required to graduate high school or to enter university, 85% of selective institutions report that a student’s AP experience favorably impacts admission decisions. Students who show particular acumen in certain subjects are encouraged to pursue an AP course in that subject or subjects. 

AP courses tend to reflect a university-style learning environment. Lessons are fast-paced and require self-motivation, strong reading skills, and the ability to conduct work outside the classroom. Through AP courses, students begin to become acquainted and comfortable with university coursework.


Genevieve from Concordia explains, “AP courses signal to colleges [universities] that a student is capable of doing college level work. However, a college would only expect students to take up to the number of AP courses allowed by their school. A student who has taken 12 AP courses is no more likely to get into university than a student who has taken 7 courses if that is the max her school permits. Additionally, colleges would prefer a more well-rounded high school experience than a student who took many AP courses but did not do any extracurricular activities.”

Nearly all American and Canadian universities accept AP scores for credit as well as 600 universities in over 55 countries outside of the U.S. 


International Baccalaureate (IB)

Schools, like YCIS, that choose to offer the IB curriculum do so because many universities consider it to be the "gold standard".


The International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum is a set of international guidelines developed to create an international educational framework that promotes critical thinking, intercultural ideals, and open-mindedness. The curriculum is taught in over 5,000 schools in over 150 countries across the globe and is widely accepted in universities all over the world. 

John Liu, a University Guidance Counsellor at YCIS Puxi says, “The IB curriculum is seen as the ‘gold standard’ by many universities, so the students who do well in the IB have a really good chance of being accepted, because the IB programme is so academically dense and has such deep research and writing requirements. Usually, international students who are studying the IB programme have a marked advantage.”

The IB curriculum focuses on four different programs throughout a student’s education, beginning with the Primary Years Program. According to the International Baccalaureate website:

The Primary Years Program (PYP) prepares children aged 3-12 years old to become active, caring, lifelong learners who demonstrate respect for themselves and others and have the capacity to participate in the world around them. 

In years 11-16, students enter the Middle Years Program (MYP) which is defined as:

A challenging framework that encourages students to make practical connections between their studies and the real world, the MYP is inclusive by design; students of all interests and academic abilities can benefit from their participation.

Between the ages of 16 and 19, students can opt for the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IBDP) and take the IBDP exams. 

The Diploma Programme (DP) curriculum is made up of six subject groups and the DP core, comprising theory of knowledge (TOK), creativity, activity, service (CAS) and the extended essay. Through the Diploma Programme (DP) core, students reflect on the nature of knowledge, complete independent research and undertake a project that often involves community service.

Terence Dayes, Secondary Vice Principal at YCIS Puxi, says about the IBDP, “As a school leaving qualification, an IB Diploma opens doors to more universities around the world than any other system. It is also considered to be the most rigorous; providing students attending universities and colleges in the US, UK, Europe, Canada, Australia, Africa and Asia with the skills, knowledge and global perspective to succeed at tertiary level and beyond.” 


Final thoughts

Raising your child in an international environment provides many practical benefits. They acquire the skills needed to live in an increasingly globalized world, they gain the ability to interact fluidly with many cultures, and they benefit from some of the best educational institutions in the world. While the academic choices in Shanghai can sometimes be overwhelming, it’s also great to know that you and your children have the option of the top curriculums and assessments on the planet.