When it comes to choosing a school, nothing is more important than finding the right fit for your child. With so many schools in Beijing, having a good understanding of a school’s curriculum can help parents narrow down their choices. In this feature, we outline nine different types of curricula and chatted with Beijing parents and students about the strengths of each. From IB to homeschooling, we invite you to sit down and study up.
English National Curriculum
The English National Curriculum was developed by the British government for standard use in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is used by over 30,000 schools in the UK and overseas. The curriculum is characterized by a broad, well-rounded education that narrows in focus after Year 11. The English National Curriculum targets students 3-18 years of age. Grades are divided into “Key Stages” that cover early childhood education, primary and secondary school:
Key Stage 0: Ages 3-5 (also known as Early Years)
Key Stage 1: Ages 5-7 (Year 1-2)
Key Stage 2: Ages 7-11 (Year 3-6)
Key Stage 3: Ages 11-14 (Year 7-9)
Key Stage 4: Ages 14-16 (Year 10-11)
Key Stage 5: Ages 16-18 (Year 12-13, collectively known as
How is it applied?
Primary school students are assessed at the end of Key Stage 1, 2, and 3 on core subjects using a scale of 1 to 8. Based on tests and teacher assessments, these assessments are known as “SATS” or Standard Assessment Tasks (not to be confused with the American SAT, a standardized test used for college admissions in the US).
At the end of Key Stage 4, students can sit up to ten subjects at a series of national exams known as the GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) with some exams and coursework completed in Year 10 and in the early stages of Year 11.
At the end of Key Stage 5, students can take the GCSE Advanced Level exams, commonly known as A-levels. A-levels are a graduated system composed of AS levels (Year 12) and A2 levels (Year 13). Students cannot move on to A2 levels if they do not pass their AS levels. The norm is to sit four or five AS levels in Year 12, then carry forward three subjects to A2 level in Year 13.
Most international schools offer the IGCSE administered by University of Cambridge International Examinations – essentially the international equivalent of the GCSE. The system offers more than 70 study subjects, with an emphasis on English fluency and cultural awareness.
Why should parents consider it?
The English National Curriculum sets out a highly structured set of standards, enabling teachers to clearly understand the learning outcomes expected at each stage and measure how a child is doing within the system. In Sixth Form, A-levels give students the fredom to choose their areas of study and explore the subjects they might want to pursue in university, making time in the work week for wider reading and additional research.
How well does this education system prepare students for the real world?
The British education system is well-recognized all over the world. A-levels are the standard qualification for universities in the UK and help students focus on preferred subjects before applying to university. They’re also generally accepted in the US and Europe as well as former Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia.
However, critics of the English National Curriculum say that it is prescriptive and lacks flexibility and creativity. Because teachers must “teach to the test,” students are said to lack problem-solving and critical thinking skills. In the UK, state school results are published and institutions are ranked against each other, sometimes leading to pressure on administrators, teachers, and students.
Spotlight: Harrow International School Beijing
Year 13 Harrow student Hannah Smith (UK/Taiwan) has been living in Beijing for seven years. Smith’s mom also works at Harrow as a Year 5 teaching assistant.
What do you like about the curriculum?
I’ve been able to drop subjects that I’m not really interested in and focus entirely on areas that I love. I’m not forced to do sciences or math past a certain level and can study areas I prefer such as literature and history in depth. This has really helped my academic achievement because I always found that subjects I didn’t like end up requiring much more energy to deal with and sucked a lot of the enjoyment out of school. With subjects that I want to study, school ends up being a lot more fun.
What are the challenges?
Some would say that having to narrow focus so much in the final two years of schooling is too restrictive. Personally, I haven’t felt like that at all, but I do have a pretty clear idea of the general area I want to go in to. If you are unsure whether you want to go in the direction of science or humanities, it might become more difficult to continue past GCSE and into AS/A2 since you generally take four subjects at AS and drop down to three at A2. That’s not to say that you have to go entirely in one direction or the other, but the system does lend itself to that.
Highlight the most interesting project you’ve worked on this year.
I was recently involved in the IEEE-funded Brain-Computer Interface workshop at Harrow as the head of media. Though I don’t actually take biology or physics, it was still really interesting and I ended up learning a lot about brain waves and the science behind brain-computer interfaces. Plus, it was a valuable lesson in the logistics of setting up an event outside school time.