Tuesday, 18 July 2017 20:45

Is That Truly a British School? All You Need to Know!

#YouAskedForIt is a series of answers to questions from our readers. The question for this post surprisingly came from a school owner in the South-West. She said: I need advice on using British curriculum or American curriculum. Which is the best?

Our Very Very Long Response

It is common to find parents who are confused on what type of curriculum they want their children to experience, especially when it comes to the British or American curriculum. Sometimes parents even believe that they are interchangeable and some believe that one is better than the other. There is also a ridiculous trend where one school will say they offer Nigerian, British, American and Turkish curriculum! How is that even possible? This confusion stems from a lack of understanding. You may say you have a blend of something, but you cannot run all four in one class.

Quick fact: Every curriculum has its pros and cons . Today, you’ll get a clear breakdown of the similarities and differences between both. While an independent international British school like you may find in Nigeria is not obliged to follow the curriculum to the last detail, you may discover that your British school isn't British after all. Sorry!

Explaining the British Curriculum: Structure, Pros and Cons

An English pre-university education runs through Early Foundation stage and Key Stage 1-5, usually begining in the Nursery (age 3) and ends in Year 13 (at the age of 18) with a transfer from primary school to secondary school at the age of 11. It ideally leads to an A Level qualification.

In the Early Years, learning is play-based to cover Personal, Social and Emotional Development, Communication and Language, Literacy, Mathematics, Physical Development, Understanding the World and Expressive arts and design. By the end of the Early Years, most children should have acquired basic reading and number skills.

According to the British School Foundation “In the Primary School (ages 5 to 11) the focus is on learning good fundamental Maths and English language skills. Science, Technology, Humanities and Art are covered as multi-disciplinary topics and through projects.

“In lower secondary (ages 11 to 14), the curriculum is more subject-based and aims at building students' ability to work independently and think critically. At this stage the emphasis is on exposing students to a wide range of subjects so that they can begin to form ideas of where their academic interests lie. Upper secondary students follow GCSE (ages 14 to 16) and A-Level or IB diploma (age 16 to 18) courses”. Some students also take the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) Board or Edexcel Examinations Board exams. Students then take the A Level exams at the end of Key Stage 5 (Years 12 and 13), usually called sixth form. Many ‘British secondary schools’ in Nigeria do not operate a sixth form college, so your child may need to change schools to write the A Level exams.

This system focuses a lot on assessments, particularly the compulsory assessments that take place at the end of Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2 and until 2009, Key Stage 3. The latter was dropped amid concerns about the over-examination of children in UK schools. Also, K-I tests have now been replaced with teacher assessment. Depending on your worldview, the rigorous testing could be an advantage or a disadvantage. Another ‘disadvantage’ is the tendency for teachers to teach towards preparing students to pass the compulsory tests instead of towards a child's interest.

Key Stages  Ages Year Groups

US Grade Equivalents

Foundation Stage 3-5 Nursery Reception+ Pre-school
Key stage 1 5-7 1-2 Kindergarten - 1st

Key stage 2

7-11 3-6 2nd - 5th
Key stage 3 11-14 7-9 6th - 8th
Key Stage 4 14-16 10-11 9th - 10th
Key stage 5 16-18 12-13 11th-12th

One of the reported benefits of this curriculum is its transferability. Students can move seamlessly from country to country or back to the UK. Students are taught to learn by questioning, problem-solving and creative thinking rather than by mere retention of facts . This is expected to help children develop analytical and creative minds.

British education is also renowned for concerning itself with the development of the whole personality which is why British schools (like American ones) usually have a diverse range of sports and other extra-curricular programmes. In most British schools, uniforms are compulsory.

Explaining the American Curriculum: Structure, Pros and Cons

The American curriculum follows:

  • Early Childhood (Pre-School - Kindergarten)
  • Elementary School ( Grade 1-4)
  • Middle School (Grade 5-8)
  • High School (Grade 9-12)

According to the Gems School blog, “An American international school starts with entry to Kindergarten at age 5. So, if you're forcing them to accept your three year old son into KG-1, you're guilty. Students can study through to Grade 12, where they are awarded with the American High School Diploma at age 17. The American Diploma is accepted for entrance by all US & Canadian universities and colleges and is increasingly recognised by other universities around the world”. It is an ideal choice for students wishing to enter into further education in North America.
But for the controversial Common Core, there is really no central American curriculum as standards in the country's education system vary from one state to the other. However, the common themes of enquiry-based learning and student-centred planning should be present .  They study a variety of subjects especially core subjects such as English, Math, Science, and History. Languages are also studied and some places require them to take gym. The curriculum is broad, balanced and student-centred; it leads to SAT and advanced placement test for university admission. Also, American schools usually do not wear uniforms;

Similarities and Differences between Both Curricular

When implemented correctly, they both provide for extra curriculum activities and According to Raghav Kapoor, they both follow an educational culture which is rich in quality education, intellectualism, academic freedom, and offer excellent research facilities.

There is an agreement on broad common principles and they have guidelines on what needs to be taught, they provide a framework from which teachers can work, provides equality educational opportunity access to all students, it is easier to transfer between schools, its goal is to ensure vocational and economic success for individual and nation, and others.

A major difference is the grading/grading system. Examinations in the UK focus on depth, and usually present few multiple choice questions with lots of writing required while US high school exams use “broad education” and lots of multiple choice questions.


Image Credit: Ben Orlin

According to Ben Orlin, a veteran math teacher who has practised in the UK and the US, “In the US, the scores you get from your teachers form the bulk of your permanent academic record; in the UK, those scores don’t even appear”. For deeper insight on how drastically different their grading system can be, check here.

Beyond grading systems, the major differences between both systems of education appear to stem from cultural differences

British Curriculum American Curriculum
It is divided into early years foundation and five key stages. It starts with preschool, followed by kindergarten at age 5, then study through to grade 12.
They are taught to learn by questioning, problem-solving, and creative thinking skills. They focus more on facts, where the general theme is Problem-solving and they do testing.
Uniforms are mandatory. Uniforms are not mandatory.
It is lecture based, and there are not too many assignments to do. They do a lot of assignments like oral presentations, writing projects, doing research papers, etc
It is more homogeneous across the country. It changes more, based on the state and school district.
It is more of a series exam. There are multiple units to the assessment of a US student.
It has more of a sense of tradition  It has introduced the concept of democracy into its education system with school district voting

Choosing the ‘Right Curriculum’

There is no right or wrong answer here. Many experts have argued that no curriculum is superior to the other. This is especially for parents who prefer schools that run a foreign curriculum. A good school can run a system that makes up for the weaknesses of any curriculum chosen. A major factor to consider is your child's next step after secondary school. Is she taking a gap year, going to a university in the UK/Nigeria or the US? A child raised in a strict British school cannot be expected to ace the required exams for an American university without a form of remedial studies.

Rhoda Odigboh, a Nigerian curriculum theorist and content specialist explained that any curriculum chosen “should be adjustable to suit needs constantly . We know that curriculum should not be static. So keep these things in mind when selecting curriculum in your preferred school. Gifted children constitute special learning needs, and they also require the sort of curriculum integration of challenging tasks that keep their memories fired up”.

Also, your world view will determine your preference. If you’re traditional and still in love with the “stiff upper lip’ type of British teacher-student relationship, that’s your call. If you prefer the liberal, democratised type expected of the American culture, that’s your call too.

When choosing a curriculum, understand the expected end and means so you know what’s expected, what’s normal and what isn’t A complete education should be more than exam grades and which type of university a child is being prepared for. Also look beyond the name. For instance, a school named ‘Glorious International School’ may not necessarily be international. Most aren’t. It also does not mean that the school runs a British or American curriculum because they say so.

We live in a rapidly changing world and we all want our children to get the best advantage, preparing for life in a society where they may be working in jobs that do not even exist now, employing technologies that have not yet been made. With any of these curriculums, be sure that your kids will learn the four skills children need to thrive in this century: Critical thinking/problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity/ innovation.

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