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How to study from abroad

Monday September 25, 2006

Anne P. Copeland

Val and Jack were excited about moving from their home in Sydney to Paris. Jack had a new job with a multinational corporation with offices in 37 different countries, a job that promised to send them all over the world. Val, a travel writer, was thrilled. She would live in interesting places she could write about. And their two children, ages four and seven, would learn new languages, have a broad and rich worldview, and meet people from many countries.

So they flew off to find a new home. They quickly learned that one of their first decisions should be where their children would go to school. French schools had an excellent reputation and this had some appeal for Val and Jack. Both believed this would be the best way to connect to the local culture and the best way for their children to learn French, something that was important to them. They had always been active in their communities and figured that having children in the local schools would open doors for involvement and connection.

But as they thought about their long-term plans, including moves to new countries every few years, they began to worry. Would it be good to hop from local school to local school? It was one thing to ask young children to learn French, which they could probably do easily. But as the children grew older, was it reasonable to expect them to study biology, math and history in the languages of their ever-changing host cultures? What if one country taught chemistry at age 14 and another at 16 ? their kids might study it twice or not at all, depending on when and where they moved. Would their children have trouble earning their diplomas within the expected period of time?

In asking these questions, Val and Jack joined the thousands of global families every year who try to make wise decisions on their children?s behalf. Luckily, there are several options available that allow students to progress through a single curriculum and set of requirements, even if they move from country to country.

The first decision parents should make is a long-range one: ?What kind of diploma, or secondary school certificate, do I want my children to earn?? If they want their children to have the option to return to their home country as an adult, they will want them to have diplomas that are recognised and well-respected there.

This does not mean that they must have their home country?s national certificate, however. Universities increasingly understand the meaning of different countries? secondary school certificates and examinations, and have policies about which are acceptable for admission (see below).

On the other hand, there are several secondary school degrees that command wide respect throughout the world because of the high-quality and challenging curriculum on which they are based. Some of these have schools in many different countries, allowing children to move relatively easily within their systems (See list below).

International Baccalaureate

Perhaps the most widely recognised certificate is the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma, a degree given to those who have completed a two-year rigorous course of study and have passed the IB examination. The IB is offered in 1877 schools in 124 countries. The programme allows students to complete their country?s national or state requirements as well as those for the IB diploma. The curriculum is both broad and intensive, incorporating the best of many countries? educational systems.

To earn the IB diploma, students must take a course in each of these five areas:
  • Language: oral, written and reading skills in the home languages, and familiarity with their cultures? literature
  • Second language: written and spoken skill in a second language
  • Individuals and societies: a course in business and management, economics, geography, history, information technology, Islamic history, philosophy, psychology, or social and cultural anthropology
  • Experimental sciences: a course in biology, chemistry, physics, environmental systems, or design technology, with an emphasis on environmental, social and ethical implications of science
  • Mathematics and computer science: a mathematics course; computer science courses are offered as electives
  • In addition, study in the arts is optional (visual arts, music, or theater)

Three of these courses must be taken at an advanced level. In addition, students must: (1) study the nature of knowledge across disciplines and learn to appreciate other cultural perspectives, (2) engage in some arts, sports, or community service, and (3) write an extended research essay.

Students? work is evaluated by their teachers and by a worldwide network of 5000 IB examiners. Performance is compared to a standard criterion used in all locations rather than to other students in the school, consistent with the goal of the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) to provide a single standard of excellence in all its programmes.

The IBO also oversees programmes at the younger grades; these are not a prerequisite for completion of the IB diploma. The Middle Years Programme, for 11?16-year-olds, covers a broad curriculum and emphasises the interrelatedness of traditional disciplines. The Primary Years Programme, for 3?12-year-olds, is organised around six interdisciplinary themes (for example, ?Who we are? and ?How the world works?) and six academic areas (language, social studies, mathematics, arts, science and technology, and personal, social and physical education).

Universities around the world recognise the IB as an indicator of a top-quality education. Some will give university credit or advanced placement to students with the IB, depending on the score the students earned in the exams. And some will waive the requirement to take entrance exams for students with the IB.

European Baccalaureate

The European Baccalaureate (EB) was designed to ease relocation within Europe. It is offered by European Schools, which offer free education for the children of staff of the European Union. There are European Schools in Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Britain.

The seven-year EB curriculum requires the study of a first and a ?first foreign? language, mathematics, science, history, geography, ethics/religion, and physical education. Some of the study of history and geography must be completed in the first foreign language. Like the IB, the curriculum prepares students for further education or employment within Europe and other countries as well. The EB gives its recipients all the rights of any secondary-school certificate in any European country.

French Baccalauréat

In the French system, secondary students attend lycées. While not as common as IB programmes worldwide, there are French lycées in a number of other countries. The graduates of a lycée earn a Baccalauréat (?Bac?) degree. The most academically challenging of these is the general diploma. There are several types, focusing on different academic subjects:
  • L: French, languages or arts, philosophy, history and geography
  • ES: Economics and social sciences, mathematics, history/geography
  • S: Mathematics, physics/chemistry, earth and life sciences

The International Option Baccalaureate (OIB) is available for bilingual or multilingual students. Students take history/geography and language/literature courses in and about their second language and culture. For example, British students could take British history and literature instead of French history and literature.

Like the IB, the French Baccalauréat is based on a very challenging and widely-respected curriculum. Students in this three-year programme study broadly but also specialise in literature, economics and social science, or scientific areas. In addition, recipients of this diploma have passed a challenging national exam. Students who complete the ?Bac? are admitted automatically into a French university.

Universities around the world regard the ?Bac? with respect. For example, highly competitive Barnard College in New York City gives an entire year?s worth of credits to holders of the French Baccalauréat.

British GCE-A-Levels

In the British system, students study all major academic subjects until the age of 14 when they select eight to 12 GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) subjects to study. Some of these are core subjects (eg English, mathematics, a modern language, science, information and communication technology, citizenship) and others are optional (eg art and design, business studies, drama, economics, engineering, health and social care, music). At the age of 16, they take exams in these subjects.

Those wishing to stay in school for two more years can then specialise further. In the first year they study four or five subjects (called AS-levels); most take four subjects. In the second year they choose two to four of these (A2-levels); most take three. Students take A-level examinations in these A2 subjects. Generally, universities require students to pass A-level examinations in two or three subjects for admission.

There are vocational options to GCSE and A-level courses, focusing on courses like art and design, business, engineering, information and communication technology, hospitality and catering, and management. These courses result in a Vocational Certificate of Education (VCE) qualification.

Graduates of the British system have received intensive and rigorous education in their chosen subjects. There is general respect for the A-level examinations around the world.

German Abitur

There is no national German curriculum ? most decisions are left to the local authorities. But generally, children attend a primary school for four years then choose one of three types of schools, depending on their academic abilities and their future plans. Academically oriented students go to a Gymnasium. At the end of the Gymnasium years, students take a series of examinations called the Abitur. This degree, too, is seen as a mark of a good education.

US American High School Diploma

Like Germany, in the United States there is no national curriculum or school structure. However, in general, American students of varying academic abilities go to the same school, throughout primary and secondary schools. All students study all major subjects throughout high school, regardless of their future school or work plans. Schools based on the American curriculum typically emphasise problem-solving skills, mastery of core academic subjects (mathematics, science, English, foreign languages, and social studies), and a well-rounded and emotionally-balanced approach to learning.

Talented students can receive a challenging education, especially by enrolment in Advanced Placement (AP) courses. AP courses are designed to be taught at the university level; each school sets its own rules for who can enrol in these courses. The AP programme administers national examinations in 19 subject areas. Good performance on these examinations is recognised around the world as evidence of a high-quality education. Students may earn university credit or placement in advanced-level courses.

Some states require students to pass a competency exam before graduation but many do not. Unlike some of the European systems, there is no national exam required for a high school diploma. University admission in the US is based not only on exam scores, but on course grades throughout high school, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, and a written essay.


Parents facing educational decisions should consult the websites listed below, and learn as much as they can about their options. There are many ways to introduce children to the opportunities of an internationally mobile lifestyle while keeping their education stable. How frequently a family will move to new countries is a primary consideration, as well as what curriculum choices they will have there, and whether, or where, they expect their children to attend post-secondary educational programmes.

 A sample of comparability

Oxford University accepts students from different countries, judging each applicant on a variety of merits besides examination scores. However, their suggested examination score levels from around the world provide a useful insight into how a university assesses cross-cultural comparability. For a longer list of country score levels, see Select your country and then click ?Qualifications?.

International Baccalaureate: A total score of 38 points, with 6s or 7s in the higher-level subjects
European Baccalaureate: An average of  85% or higher, with scores between 8 and 9 in specified subjects
France: French Baccalauréat with an average score of 15
Germany: A final total mark in the Abitur of between 1 and 1.5 (on the traditional scale of 1-6) with scores of between 13 and 15 in individual subjects
USA: Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) score of 2100 or American College Test (ACT) of 32, and 3-4 SAT IIs in a range of subjects with scores of 700, or 2 or more AP exams, with grades of 4 or 5
UK: A-level grades of AAA/AAB

Find a School

These websites all include information about educational programmes and/or extensive lists of schools that offer an international curriculum of some sort:
Directory of English-speaking schools worldwide
European Council of International Schools
ScholaEuropaea: information about the European Schools of the European Union and about the European Baccalaureate
International Baccalaureate Organisation
Universities and Colleges Admissions Service for Britain
Description of the British national curriculum
The Council of British Independent Schools in the European Communities
Federation of British International Schools in South and East Asia
Lists of German schools around the world
US Advanced Placement programme
US State Department?s list of American international schools around the world


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