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English and International Curricula – leading up to secondary school

In English-speaking classrooms at international schools throughout Switzerland, students will be following the International Baccalaureate curriculum. This begins at age 5, with the IB Curriculum Primary Years Programme (PYP), designed to equip children up to the age of 11 with all they need to begin the Middle Years Programme (MYP).  A large proportion of students continue studying the MYP until the age of 16, when they will have completed their secondary education. Then they will make the decision whether to go on to study the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB DP) or perhaps to switch to the English curriculum’s A Levels, depending their preferred style of learning.

Secondary school: GCSE or MYP?

Although many students and their parents are aware that there is a choice to be made between the IB DP and A-Levels following secondary school, fewer look critically at the option of MYP versus GCSE. In Switzerland in international schools, many students do continue the MYP until they are 16. However, some students, particularly those looking ahead to a place at an international university, may opt out of the MYP for the more structured iGCSEs.  The choice depends not only on the offering of the school, but the future plans of the student and their ability and study habits. Knowing what kind of student you are dealing with can be the difference between success and failure in choosing which curriculum they should follow.  

Secondary school exams: GCSE or MYP?

The GCSE course is a two-year programme, which leads to a set of examinations taken at age 16. The programme is based around 5 core subjects which are mandatory, including Maths and English, but students usually take a combination of 8 to 11 subjects, depending on their interests, ability and the school’s offering. Students who deal less well with exams set and assessed by national and international examination bodies may find the UK GCSE and iGCSE systems less appealing than continuing with the MYP.   If not, the iGCSEs and GCSEs are great preparation for exams later in their academic life and also count as points towards University acceptance.

If students continue with the MYP until age 16, they sit internal assessments and exams, which many find less intimidating. There is a wider spread of subjects (students have less choice and sit on average 13 subjects) and often more varied means of assessing students, aside from exams and more project work. The MYP also provides continuity with the IB DP– the style of learning is very similar. It is worth considering though, that students completing the MYP and go onto the IB DP will sit their first set of formal exams at age 18.

Coursework: more or less?

While the type of exams that students face are a key consideration for choosing either the GCSEs or the MYP, both courses also offer varying flexibility on the number of exams that a student must sit, by completing coursework throughout the programmes, which can alleviate some of the stress and pressure associated with the final exams. Other students may find they perform better in exams, and feel buried by the prospect of long hours of coursework to complete throughout. At GCSE level, the coursework options vary between subjects, and this balance should be a key question to ask teachers when deciding which mix of subjects to undertake.

University challenge

The final set of exams that a student will need to sit before (and during) their applications to University will usually be either the IB DP or A-Levels. The MYP is considered to be a natural transition to prepare students well for the IB DP because it is in keeping with the IB style and philosophy. The GCSE system complements A-Levels well as they are both based on the UK curriculum. However, the combination of GCSE and IB is still widespread, as is that of MYP and A-Levels. A-Levels enable students to be more selective in the subjects they pursue, as they are required to take fewer subjects than those at IB DP. Good all-rounder students, who prefer a breadth of subjects, especially if they are unsure of future choices, typically opt for the IB DP.  The A-Level enables those who know their strengths to concentrate on their chosen subjects, although there is scope to span Humanities and Sciences as there are no restrictions as to the combination of subjects chosen (except ability).

The winning combination

There are a number of possible combinations of programmes that students at international school can sit. The task of choosing which path to take, and which exams to sit may seem daunting with so many options. Indeed, some Anglophone international schools are loyal proponents of either the English or the International system throughout their school career, a continuity that some students find easier to deal with. On the whole, students should feel confident that the programmes are actually very complementary.  It is mainly about working out with your teachers, schools and above all your child, what will bring the best out of them.
If you are interested in learning more about A-Levels as a pre-university option for your 16-18 year old, whether they will have completed GCSE, the MYP or another secondary programme, consider attending an Information Evening hosted by the British School of Geneva on Tuesday 28 January 2014 from 6:00-7:30pm. I and Directors from two schools in the region offering A-Levels programmes will be happy to answer your questions. For more information, click here.

Author's Bio

sabine hutcheson bioSabine Hutcheson is a British-trained school teacher, with over a decade’s teaching experience in Switzerland, UK and neighbouring France. She has taught a variety of subjects to children from 5 to 18 years old, as well as adults, and is now Academic Director and Education Consultant at TutorsPlus. Visit www.tutorsplus.com to find out more about their education consultancy, tuition service, special needs support and intensive SAT/ACT Prep and IGCSE & IB revision courses.