Deciphering Curriculums

By Melissa Dawson 2020-06-24 12:02:17

Shanghai International schools elaborate on their programmes and how they support students to reach their future goals

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both...” Those famous lines from Robert Frost have become an almost universally understood symbol for moments in life when one must choose and the times when you look back and consider just where those choices have led you. However, as I was speaking to representatives from the various international schools here in Shanghai, one thing stood out to me: at these schools, teens aren’t simply choosing their paths from a set of predetermined ones, they are actively creating their own futures, through the amazing support, guidance, and opportunities afforded to them.

This flexibility, though, can be cause for confusion. What is the difference between IB, A Levels, and AP, and which is more appealing to various universities? What about examinations? And, what happens if you change your mind about your course? To help clarify amongst the curricula available, we contacted the British International School of Shanghai, Puxi (BISS Puxi), Concordia International School Shanghai, Harrow International School Shanghai, Shanghai American School (SAS), Shanghai Community International School (SCIS), and Wellington College International School to gain more information about their specific programmes and how they support students to shape their ideal future.

To begin, let’s briefly explore the terminology around these programmes:

IB - This stands for International Baccalaureate. The programme was founded in 1958 with the stated mission that it, “aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect”. They have a presence in over 150 countries and, “for students, success in the IB often results in advanced standing, course credit, scholarships, and other admissions-related benefits at many universities”. This is truly an international option.

A Levels - The General Certificate of Education Advanced Level qualifications are the typical credentials required for leaving school and applying to university in the UK. These require selecting specific courses (there are no mandatory subjects), usually 3-4, and then sitting examinations set by various examination boards.

IGCSE - Similar to the British GCSE curriculum, a prerequisite for all UK students wishing to study A Levels, the International General Certificate of Secondary Education is an exam and coursework based qualification, offered by three different examination boards, usually studied between the ages of 14 to16.

AP- Advanced Placement is an American programme that allows students to complete college coursework and potentially receive college credit while in high school. It is subject-based, and students undergo examinations at the end of each course, through the College Board.

Now, let’s dive deeper into a Q&A about how these programmes work in some of the numerous educational institutions in Shanghai.

Q. Can you describe the programme(s) you offer?

A. BISS Puxi: “BISS Puxi follows a version of the English National Curriculum. When students move into Year 10 (age 14-15) they are asked to pick specific subjects that they wish to study further at IGCSE level, in preparation for examinations. At post 16, BISS Puxi offers the world-renowned International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.”

A. Concordia: “We offer a liberal arts, North American education for our students of Grades 9 to 12. As students progress through the high school programme, they gain greater access to both the Advanced Placement (AP) programme as well as our own ‘Applied Learning Program’.”


A. Harrow Shanghai:
“Harrow Shanghai’s pupils study the ‘General Certificate of Education, Advanced Level’ better known as ‘A Levels’. It is a curriculum studied in the last two years of a child’s secondary school education and required for applying to university.’”

A. SAS: “We offer the ability for students to pursue the comprehensive IB diploma, which has a social-emotional element to it, as well as to take classes piecemeal. Students can also take AP classes in pursuit of the AP diploma or certificate.”

A. SCIS: “SCIS offers the IB Diploma Programme (DP). We provide a range of courses from the six subject groups. Schedules are largely bespoke, with students making course choices based on interest and profile.”


A. Wellington: “In the Sixth Form, we offer the IBDP (International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme). This is one of the most prestigious and robust programmes for university preparation, one we believe best serves children preparing to live and succeed in an uncertain world”

Q. How does your curriculum differ from others?

A. BISS Puxi: “Like many curricula, ours offers the chance for students to try lots of subjects in their early years of secondary education without the need to specialise. The main difference would be IGCSE offers an externally validated examination at 16, which many other curricula do not offer. This is important as students have the chance to learn how to take exams in a realistic environment before they take their IB Exams, or SATs or A Levels.”


A. Concordia: “The real benefit of the ‘AP program’ over, let’s say the IB programme, is that the courses are one year in length. Our students are not locked into a two-year programme spanning their 11th and 12th grade years. Instead, they have the freedom to experience different courses and subject areas while still going deeply in each one by studying them at a college level. Universities in both the United States and Canada are very familiar with the ‘AP program’ and some will even grant college credit for AP courses taken in high school.”

A. Harrow Shanghai: “A Levels provide the gold standard of education and are accepted by universities globally. Undergraduate students often gain credits for the A Level courses they have taken, and in some cases even skip the first year entirely, thus catalysing their way towards their chosen career path. A Levels allow for specialisation and individual choice. If a student feels confident that they know their career path, they can pursue the subjects pertinent to it.” 

A. SAS: “SAS is unusual as it offers both the AP and IB pathways, and students are able to mix courses from both curricula. SAS has an emphasis on personalisation, community, and on opportunities to build soft skills. There is a lot of mythology around the idea that one type of curricula is better for one country system than other curricula, but that is not the case. Good counselling and the choices that come with self-understanding matter, and we work to create opportunities for families to see that on display.”


A. SCIS: “The two-year courses allow students to immerse themselves in each discipline. There is a special emphasis on developing skills – thinking, communicating, social, self-management, and research. The Diploma Programme (DP) Core, including Creative, Activity, Service (CAS), Theory of Knowledge (TOK), and the Extended Essay (EE), provide a well-rounded foundation for learn- ing. Typically, parents and students interested in SCIS for their final two years are pursuing an IB Diploma versus other programmes, and they are familiar with the demands and rewards of the programme.”

Q. When do students begin to select their courses, and what guidance is available to help them?

A. BISS Puxi: “The first choice is made at the age of 11 when students choose which modern foreign language they wish to study. All students study English and Mandarin but they also get to choose between French, German, and Spanish as a second language. The final choices are made for IB at the end of Year 11 at the age of 16. Students and parents receive lots of advice on these choices to ensure that any choice made will not have a detrimental impact on choices later down the line. Our Higher Education team offers guidance to all Year 11 students to ensure that they all meet the subject requirements for their degree choices two years down the line.”

A. Harrow Shanghai: “Our Head of Higher Education and Careers, Mr Felix Baden-Powell, works closely with each pupil to help them to prepare well for university from Year 10. This begins with helping them to explore their strengths and potential careers and, then, as they move into the Sixth Form, assisting pupils in their course selection and the development of their personal statement. Secondly, Mr Baden-Powell aims to go beyond the curriculum and nurture our pupils’ curiosity. At Harrow Shanghai, we regularly welcome external speakers to speak to pupils about different careers and/or universities. This opportunity to ask questions and challenge themselves with industry leaders is paramount in increasing the pupils’ confidence and helping them to learn more about different careers.”


A. Wellington: “Each subject teacher gets to know the children in their care well. They know their strengths and where the opportunities lie, are able to advise which course might have the biggest impact on individual pupils, the learning that their pupils might enjoy and the outcomes they could achieve. Our team of college advisors have great expertise in assisting pupils to attend the right university for them, be it in the UK, the US or many other parts of the world. They excel in providing specific, bespoke advice and guidance to our young people and their families.”

Q.What can be done if a student wants to study a different course, or change their university plans? Is this common?

A. Concordia: “It is very common for high school students to change their future goals and aspirations. We see this often and we expect it. In Grades 11 and 12, our students can go more deeply in those areas that interest them most by taking AP courses or Applied Learning courses. Through liberal arts study and meeting our graduation requirements, our students are well-positioned to pursue advanced studies in a wide range of areas beyond high school.”

A. SAS: “Our plan of study creates opportunities for students to discover and to change their minds. We create space for that, and help them understand that the goal of their education is to build enduring understandings that will transfer to a wide variety of settings. It is not unusual for our students to research several different country systems and find focus or even change course as they move into their senior year. We are here to support their aspirations and scaffold informed decision making. Changing minds is fine with us!”

A. SCIS: “As the IB Diploma is recognised for being such a well-rounded education, university pathways are rarely limited based on course selection. Some programmes require higher-level mathematics and science courses, but students are given guidance from our college counsellor to help them navigate this part of the selection process. We spend a significant amount of time on the front end making sure that courses are thoughtfully selected. If circumstances change, often those changes can be accommodated – especially early in the programme.”

A. Wellington: “Our experience teaches us that pupils only want to make drastic changes in very rare cases and we believe that this is largely as a result of the high level of advice, support, and guidance that our pupils receive from very early on in their academic careers. Indeed, planning is not something that begins in the first year of the IBDP, but far earlier at Wellington. This helps our pupils make confident choices, but also gives them the ability to change direction thoughtfully and intelligently, should the need arise.”


In the end, it seems no matter which programme you ultimately choose they all provide great opportunities for future generations to define their goals, discover their passions, and actively shape their own futures. They are world-renowned programmes for their thoroughness, breadth, and depth, and as indicators of a student’s preparedness to enter college or university. Not only this but the supportive and thoughtful guidance in place at each school, leads young teens to wise choices and countless opportunities as they prepare to take their first steps out into the world, forging their own path as they go.