Why English exams are the gold standard overseas

The Telegraph, 20/02/15, many top international schools believe that traditional GCSEs and A-levels are a class above the rest and can open educational doors around the world

In their home country, GCSEs and A-levels have had something of a rough ride of late. Grade inflation and claims that they are too easy have prompted radical reforms, with even the 'gold-standard' A-level appearing to lose its lustre.

But in the global education market they are still a valuable currency. Latest figures show four out of 10 international schools teach the English national curriculum, more than twice as many as use its nearest competitor.

The discrepancy in attitudes at home and abroad may be partly a result of the English not recognising what they have got, according to Sir Roger Fry, founder and chairman of the King's Group, which runs schools in Spain and Panama, as well as the UK. "British education is admired around the world in every country except one, and that is the United Kingdom," says Sir Roger.

"It is a quality education and it is recognised as such worldwide." One of the attractions of the UK system is the rigour and integrity of its exams, he says. International schools following the UK curriculum at secondary level will usually offer GCSEs or their international equivalent, the IGCSE, and many offer A-levels as well.

"The examinations are set and moderated by university boards, whereas in many other school systems they have school-set examinations," says Sir Roger, who is also president of the Council of British International Schools (Cobis). "It means they are the same for everybody and people know what to expect."

Part of the appeal is also the international reputation of Britain's education institutions. Names including Eton, Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge are well-known across the world. "British traditions come through in education and are admired worldwide," says Sir Roger. The English curriculum also has the advantage of being taught in English, growing ever popular as a global language, he adds.

For many expatriates, an English curriculum means their children will be able to slip back easily into school if they return to the UK, says Mike Weston, senior headmaster of Sherborne Qatar. Many expats in the Middle East are on short-term contracts, and value the ability to move their children with a minimum of disruption. "It means they can carry on doing what they were familiar with when they came out to us, and the same when they return," he says.

But it is not just expats who like the UK curriculum. Around 60 per cent of Sherborne Qatar's parents are expats, another 20 per cent or so are Qataris and the remaining 20 per cent are from a mixture of Commonwealth, European and other nations.

And one of the big attractions of the English curriculum is its combination of breadth with depth, right through the key stages and particularly at GCSE and A-level, says Weston. "Our Commonwealth parents in particular like the breadth and the possibility of doing history and geography with a language and three sciences," he adds. "A lot of our parents are in finance, engineering or medicine and they want their children to have the same basis of education that they had."

The standard of teacher training in the UK is also widely respected, he says, and following a UK curriculum means schools can draw on a large pool of qualified teachers. But there is another reason parents choose a British curriculum, according to Simon O'Connor, principal of Jumeirah College in Dubai, and that is as a passport to university. Many European countries accept each other's qualifications for university entrance, but A-levels are also respected elsewhere, including the USA and Canada. "The qualifications that result from a British education enable students to continue their education around the world," says O'Connor.

Just under half of students at Jumeirah, part of the GEMS group of schools, are British passport holders, but the college has 59 nationalities in all, with large numbers of Indian, Australian, South African and Canadian students.While many head to university in the UK, globalisation – plus tuition fees at home – means more students are considering going elsewhere for higher education. And, depending on their grades, A-levels can be an advantage, for example in giving students exemption from some American college courses.

"A set of good A-levels is recognised as an impressive achievement that demonstrates a high level of ability," says O'Connor. "There is an integrity both to the qualifications and the system that supports them, and a confidence that if a student is successful it has given them a knowledge of the world."

For non-UK universities, A-level students are highly sought-after, says Danette Anderson, director of enrolment at John Cabot, an American university in Rome. Around 15 per cent of John Cabot's 7,000 students have followed A-levels, making it the third most popular entry path, after a US high school qualification and the International Baccalaureate. "It is a very standardised system and usually students who arrive with A-levels are of a very high standard," she says. "They have excellent writing skills and very good analytical skills."

A-level students often have a greater depth of knowledge than those who followed other routes, she adds. "They are focused and they have the building blocks for when they start an advanced degree. We find they are very well prepared for our courses," she says.

A student with good grades in four A-levels can expect credits worth around a sixth of a degree, she adds.

It may have had its troubles at home, but outside the UK the reputation of a British education is as strong as ever. "It is respected across the world and held in high esteem," says O'Connor. "Parents from all over the world are keen to tap into a British education."

Popular worldwide

The global appeal of the UK-based curriculum is underlined by figures showing it has by far the largest share of the international education market.

Research by the International School Consultancy (ISC) group shows that 3,115 international schools use a UK-based curriculum, which in practice is the English national curriculum leading to GCSEs and A-levels.

This represents 41 per cent of the international schools market, making it more than twice as popular as the next most widely chosen, the International Baccalaureate, which is taught by 17 per cent of international schools.

And its popularity shows no signs of diminishing. The last five years have seen an increase of around 27 per cent in the number of schools offering a UK-based curriculum.

For many international schools, the UK curriculum helps differentiate them from other schools in a way that attracts not just UK expatriates, but also local families and expatriates from other countries, says Nicholas Brummitt, chairman of ISC Research.

"It is especially prevalent in countries which have strong historical connections with the UK but whose national curricula do not have the same high status," he says.

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