International parents sending their prep school age children (ages 7 to 13) to UK boarding schools need to be aware of the curriculums being taught in this age range. There are two main types of curriculum – (1) a variant of the UK National Curriculum (NC) and (2) the International Baccalaureate Preliminary Years Programme (PYP) – bear in mind that 95% + of pupils in UK private schools will be on the NC variant.
The National Curriculum (NC) provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. It is mandatory in UK state schools (excepting state academies) but is not mandatory in UK private schools, who can devise their own curriculums. However these are mostly based on the NC, with scope for schools to develop and expand their own curriculum to meet the needs of the children in their care. Private schools have the advantage of longer teaching hours and smaller class sizes. The curriculum is underpinned by traditional British values and aims to prepare children for life as an educated and responsible citizen. All these variants of the NC will include English, Maths and Science plus Religious Education.
International parents are often interested to find out which languages are taught in UK schools, but there is no standard answer. In addition to the standard English most prep schools will teach a modern European language (usually French). However some schools may take a far more innovative approach teaching a different language every year, just to give the children wide experience before they reach senior school where they will start to specialise.
Whereas very young children are normally taught by one main class teacher, supported by a permanent Teaching Assistant, from aged 7 upwards, subjects are taught primarily as separate disciplines. Students will normally study an hour of English and Maths every morning and additional subjects are timetabled with specialist teachers throughout the week. For example, the average private school will timetable approximately 4 PE lessons per week with the sports coach, another 2 lessons per week with the music specialist and a set number of hours in the science lab. Each individual subject will have its own prescribed programme of study and children will follow a progressive set of learning outcomes. The school will add its own touch by holding theme or focus days throughout the year.
Assessment is continual and children sit formal standardised assessments.
Children in independent prep schools are prepared for competitive private senior school entrance tests including ISEB Common Entrance tests at age 11 or 13 and individual school entrance exams. Some prep schools also prepare children for the 11+ test for entry to state grammar schools.
Within the PYP students are taught to be independent in their learning, to follow their own lines of inquiry and take risks. There is a large focus on the development of strong personal values and international-mindedness, preparing young people for the intellectual challenges of their future careers.
The curriculum is delivered around six themes, ‘who we are’ and ‘our world’ etc, rather than by subject area; maths, science etc. Teachers and pupils design their own units of inquiry (projects) together so there is huge emphasis on pupils formulating their own questions, researching the answers, reflecting on their findings and taking action. This affords a huge amount of freedom and creativity to teachers and each school is likely to follow different projects. Teaching projects across all subject areas makes it difficult to hold teachers to account for student progress.
The IB does not set examinations or moderate grades in the PYP. In school assessment takes place to identify weaknesses and guide future learning but there are no benchmarked tests. In the final year of the PYP, students carry out an extended, in-depth, collaborative project known as the PYP Exhibition. In terms of future schools / curriculum, PYP pupils might be expected to progress to IB MYP and parents need to appreciate there are hardly any boarding schools teaching the MYP in the UK, because most MYP schools are day schools.
It is commonly argued that the PYP is lacking in structure and academic rigour, whilst the NC is too rigid. However, the UK is famed for its high standards and high quality education. The NC is extremely well established and whilst alterations are made regularly, the overall standard of education is excellent. Following the NC will prepare a child for the crucial exams aged either 11 or 13 which will dictate their future school and academic aspirations within the UK. If the parent is aiming for their child to join a selective high performing academic school at 11 or 13 they should pick a prep school following the NC variant. If the child is going to stay at an international curriculum school or go back overseas to an IB senior school, then the IB PYP would be suitable.
19th October 2017
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17th October 2017