IB and Cambridge Programs: A Universal International Curriculum

My Australian neighbors, who moved to New Jersey from Malaysia, are moving to Scotland next month.

This kind of international mobility is exciting from a career and cultural standpoint. A primary concern for my neighbors, however, is ensuring that their kids’ education doesn’t suffer as a result of starting afresh at multiple schools. A local curriculum may not always meet children’s educational needs, especially when your children’s new school is in a country where learning a different language is required.

Global Education Options

So what’s your best option when you know your kids will spend only a few years in one country before moving on? Depending on your situation, you could choose one of the following options:

  • Send your child to an international school that focuses on the curriculum of your home country. This makes sense if you are sure that your child will complete her K-12 education back in your country.

  • Choose a school with an international curriculum that is offered at many locations around the world. That way, your child can continue with the same curriculum when you move to another part of the world.

Additionally, you want to look for the following:

  • Flexibility, especially concerning language study requirements

  • A curriculum that leads to a high school diploma accepted by most universities around the world

Two options that meet all of these criteria are the International Baccalaureate curriculum and the U.K.-based Cambridge curriculum, the latter of which can lead to the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) and the Cambridge Advanced Staged (AS level) or Advanced (A level) qualifications.

International Baccalaureate (IB)

The IB was founded in 1968 as a nonprofit educational foundation in Geneva, Switzerland. Today, there are 3,918 IB schools in 148 countries around the world. You can find the global listing of IB schools worldwide on its official website. Noodle also has a list of IB programs in the U.S. that you can search for schools nearby.

The IB offers programs for kids at three different educational levels:

  • The Primary Years Program (ages 3 to 12)

  • The Middle Years Program (ages 11 to 16)

  • The Diploma Program or the IB Career-related certificate (ages 16–19 years)

    (The latter certificate is a course of study that includes a career-related program integrated with elements of the diploma program.)

What makes the International Baccalaureate stand out?

According to the creators of the IB curriculum, its mission is to encourage students to be responsible, global citizens; the curriculum strives to promote intercultural understanding and respect.

The IB program is flexible and allows students to focus their projects and assignments on the country of their choice. Students have the option to learn more than one language, with no restriction on the choice of language as long as it contains a written body of work. A school’s availability of teachers fluent in particular languages would, of course, inform the options for your child.

Each IB program has significant independent and written projects that are required for students to graduate. In addition to traditional subjects of study, the Diploma program includes a 4,000-word extended essay on a topic of the student’s choosing. Diploma students also take part in Creativity Action Service, which requires engagement in the arts, physical education, and community service.

Finally, IB students must study Theory of Knowledge, which is an examination of different types of knowledge. This inquiry allows students and teachers to reflect critically on diverse ways of knowing and to consider the role and nature of knowledge in the context of their own and other cultures. The course is assessed through an oral presentation and a 1,600-word essay.

Read more about the importance of teaching global awareness in K–12 education.

The IB Diploma is recognized in universities across 75 countries worldwide, including major universities in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia. An IB recognition team works with universities and governments across the globe to educate them about the curriculum and ensure that IB students are recognized for their qualifications.

Students with high grades in IB courses can get college credits in U.S. universities. Many high schools in the U.S. now offer the IB Diploma as an alternative to Advanced Placement (AP) courses. An in-depth comparison of AP courses and the IB Diploma explains why some students might prefer one type over the other.

Follow this link for helpful advice about preparing high schoolers for college level courses.

The Cambridge Curriculum: IGCSE, AS, and A Levels

Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) is an arm of Cambridge University in the U.K. It offers programs at all levels, and their qualifications are offered internationally in 10,000 schools across 160 countries and regions, including Australia, the Middle East, Singapore, India, the U.K., France, Argentina, and Brazil. The CIE website lists many of the schools worldwide that offer the Cambridge Curriculum.

The Cambridge Curriculum is divided into four stages:

  • Cambridge Primary (ages 5 to 11)

  • Cambridge Secondary 1 (ages 11 to 14)

  • Cambridge Secondary 2 (ages 14 to 16) leading to the IGCSE qualification

  • Cambridge Advanced (ages 16 to 19) leading to the AS and A Level qualifications

What makes the Cambridge Curriculum stand out?

The IGCSE qualification — or assessment — is one of the most popular qualifications awarded to students at the end of 10th grade. The exam can be conducted and scored by the CIE or by EdExcel, another assessment entity owned by the Pearson Group. Both assessment companies are highly respected and have similar study curricula for students.

The “core” curriculum for IGCSE students includes a first language, a second language, math, and one or more sciences. Students have the choice of 70 subjects, including 30 languages offered by the CIE, and are free to choose from among these offerings; the only restriction on their options is the availability of teachers in a given subject. If you're looking for help with a subject that's not available at your school, browse Noodle's list of local tutors by subject.

Students can then go on to take the AS or A level exams before graduating high school. AS level is typically a one-year course of study in a chosen subject, while the A levels are two-year courses. A choice of 55 subjects (including a range of world languages) is offered, and students in either track can choose to specialize in a particular subject area or study a broad range of subjects.

For both the IGCSE and the Cambridge Advanced levels, the combination of subjects offered in individual schools can vary. Parents and students should inquire about whether the subjects of their choice are offered at the schools they are considering.

Leading universities worldwide — including the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia, India, Singapore, and Germany — accept students who qualify in the Cambridge exams. Strong grades on the A level exams can enable students to receive college credits.

Which is better: International Baccalaureate or the Cambridge Program?

The short answer is that you can’t really go wrong with either choice.

Both have rigorous curricula and a variety of assessment methods beyond written examinations, such as oral presentations, research papers, practical exercises, and independent projects. Both programs prepare students for college and are well-regarded by leading universities across the world.

IB has a strong focus on all-around development and weaves in volunteer work and trips as part of the curriculum.

One notable difference is that the Cambridge curriculum offers the IGCSE, the qualifying exam for 10th grade students. There is no equivalent for students of the same age who graduate from the IB Middle Years program. Some parents prefer that their kids take an exam at this stage.

The Cambridge program is also considered to have a more structured framework, a characteristic that makes it easier for schools to implement. That said, every IB-certified school undergoes an assessment by the International Baccalaureate at least once every five years to ensure that standards and programs are being properly maintained. There are also many schools around the world that offer a blended curriculum, with the Cambridge program in the middle 5th to 10th grades, and the IB program at the beginning and end.

As you consider an international education for your child, keep in mind that the IB and Cambridge curricula have all the components needed to provide a solid educational foundation.

A final note

Even though these are international curricula, the way in which each is implemented may be influenced, to some extent, by the local country’s culture and attitude toward education. For this reason, once you’ve decided on a curriculum, it’s important to ask for reviews from current students and parents so you can understand the school’s approach and philosophy toward education.

Moving to the U.S. and making a decision about your education? Read Yamini's article about whether to choose a public and private school.

Sources:

(n.d.). Retrieved October 9, 2014, from Cambridge International Examinations.

(n.d.). Retrieved October 9, 2014, from The International Baccalaureate.