Options for international education

What does it mean for a school to be ‘international’, and how does a school become international? What are the factors which determine the international curricula pathway your school will take?

International education is expanding everywhere. According to the International Schools Consultancy Research Group there were 7,500 international schools across the globe in 2015. By 2025 this number is forecasted to double. That will mean approximately 8 million students and 700,000 staff employed.

International schools are varied by nature and can be broadly classified as offering a UK, US, bilingual or International Baccalaureate curriculum, or indeed a mix of these. This is a necessary oversimplification but the decision on mix of curricula is what will largely determine the mission and goals of a school and its pupils.

The curriculum mix

A UK curriculum is still considered by many to be the ‘gold standard’ of education and leads to the attainment of (International) GCSEs and (International) A Levels whilst developing more analytical and investigative skills. Pearson, as the largest awarding organisation in the UK, offers a comprehensive suite of these qualifications which also have the development of transferable skills embedded throughout, so pupils are better prepared for progressing to Higher Education and the world of work.

A US curriculum may offer more flexibility in teaching content (or perhaps not if a school follows the Common Core standards) whilst the International Baccalaureate is a popular choice due to the holistic approach in aiming to develop well rounded learners with a broad knowledge base and a global awareness.

The bilingual school sector is worth a special mention as many schools are enhancing their curriculum with international elements, such as for example teaching and learning resources, teaching styles and offering international exams, whilst still maintaining a firm foothold in the local curriculum. Some would argue that these schools are not truly international but the reality is that many ambitious bilingual schools see this as their direction of travel for the future.

The question of language and age

There are themes common to all these school types when considering what your school is going to offer in terms of curriculum and qualifications. Most important to many parents is ensuring the school is developing English language skills alongside subject knowledge in order for a student to be successful. The reality is that most international schools have many more local students on the roll than ex-pats, and in order to successfully access content and produce academic work at International GCSE level, the students need to be at least B2 in English. This entails looking at how and when your school admits pupils, what EFL provision is supplied and also what type of teachers the school will employ.


Increasingly, parents want their children to start in an international school from a very young age, even from 2 years old, so that language ability can develop quickly and naturally. The outcome is not only a very fluent English speaker, but the pupil is also equipped with a set of 21st Century skills and international qualifications which are a passport to access the best universities in the world. When pupils join so young and English level is less of a ‘hang-up’, the real uninhibited learning can take place. Schools know this and recognise the benefits of offering parents and pupils a complete, uninterrupted learning journey.


The right mix

In my experience no two international schools are the same. Some do the US curriculum with the IB, some do the IB with A levels, some do a UK curriculum with local baccalaureate, some do bilingual with International GCSE/A Level and the list goes on. Such decisions are based on marrying student-parent expectations and the ethos of the school as well as considering local and cultural factors. In conclusion, this is the fascinating thing about international education in its various formats: it is flexible and varied and can be adapted and tailored to the needs of a school, meaning learners have every opportunity to progress and achieve in higher education and in their lives.


About the Author 

Paul Kelly worked as a teacher in the UK state sector initially and went on to work in an international school for 8 years. In 2011 he joined Pearson as Educational Consultant for Iberia and in 2015 progressed to Regional Development Manager. He is now Academic Specialist for Europe and Africa for International Schools, working specifically with Edexcel qualifications and published resources at all levels.

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