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The UK Curriculum...

Parents sending their children to UK Boarding Schools from other countries are often bewildered by the choice of curriculum and which is the best for their child. Because the majority of boarding requests are at the senior end, we will start this explanation of the options for 16+ years of age and then work backwards to younger children.

A Levels

The most common senior curriculum is the A Level, which is commonly taken over a 2 year period. Typically in the first year (age 16) a pupil chooses 4 subjects and at the end of that year takes examinations for AS Level (=Advanced Subsidiary). In the second year (age 17) they typically drop one subject and end up taking three subjects at A2 Level which then gives them their 3 A Level passes. A Levels have a number of UCAS tariff points allocated to the exam grades obtained which can be from E up to A*. In our league tables we only measure the three top grades A*, A and B because if you want to get into a top 30 UK University you will need one of these top grades. Indeed to get into Oxford, Cambridge or Medical School you ideally need at least A* + A + A . There are well over 40 possible A Level subjects, but most boarding schools offer between 20 to 25 subject choices – but it does not matter what you want to study, we will find you somewhere which offers it!

International Baccalaureate

Over the last 10 years there has been a dramatic increase in UK schools offering the IB Diploma Program, because (a) it is an international qualification highly rated by UCAS and (b) it is transferrable because you can move from one country to another on the same syllabus. It again applies to a 2 year period from age 16, but the key difference is that you must take one subject from each of 6 groups, which means that you will as a minimum take Maths, a Modern Language and a Science. It is a stretching curriculum which suits “all-rounders” who are well organised. For this reason , it is allocated higher UCAS tariff points than equivalent A Level subjects. Much more detail can be found in our eGuide. See also our separate website


In recent years, some of the elite UK private schools became disenchanted with the way A Level grades inflated, leading to the accusation they had become “dumbed down”. However, they were reluctant to move to the IB, because it was too general – thus, they worked with Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) to devise a new syllabus called the Pre-U Diploma Program. This involves more teaching hours than A Levels and is more stretching, which has resulted in higher UCAS tariff points. There is no intermediate examination like the AS. The key difference to the IB DP is that the Pre-U still has total freedom of choice with your subjects. Much more information can be found on our separate website You can also compare the A level v IB DP v Pre-u in our eGuide

Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers

Scotland has its own system of Highers and Advanced Highers, which are roughly equivalent to AS and A2 Levels. They are equally valid for entry to Universities. Indeed you can get into many Universities just with Highers alone. Additionally many schools in Scotland allow pupils to take a mixture of Highers and A Levels. Note that Highers are accepted by all Universities, such that there is no reason to disregard them. Additionally, Scottish Universities are less expensive than English Universities!

University Foundation Programs

There are a whole raft of different post 16 qualifications generally called Foundation Programs, usually offered by either Private Sixth Form Colleges or Universities themselves. Typically they offer a fast track entry into University over 12 or 18 months. However, beware that generally they are not as academically robust as the preceding curriculums, such that many of the Top 30 Universities WILL NOT ACCEPT THEM. They are marketed heavily to foreign students as a guaranteed entry to a UK University. It’s a quicker, less expensive route, but you are not going to get into Oxbridge or Medical School with one of these. Plus, you will not find them offered at UK Boarding schools.

From 14 to 16 – GCSEs or the IB Middle Years Program

The vast majority of UK Boarding Schools teach the GCSE curriculum for a 2 year period between age 14 and 16. However, grade inflation in normal GCSEs have persuaded most Boarding Schools to switch to iGCSEs, the international version which has a more robust curriculum. Note that it is extremely difficult to transfer in to a UK school at age 15 midway through GCSEs. We can sometimes find alternatives in Private Sixth Form Colleges who often run 1 year GCSES. However, a student will usually be restricted to a maximum of 6 subjects, whereas it is common to take between 8 to 12 on the normal 2 year basis. The only real alternative to GCSEs is the Middle Year Program of the IB. However, be aware that the vast majority of UK private schools do not rate the IB MYP as a robust curriculum. Of the 70+ IB schools only 6 offer the MYP and only one of those has boarding. We advise most parents of 11 to 15 year olds seeking an IB school to start with an iGCSE school and switch to the IB DP at 16. If you really insist on seeking a Boarding School with the MYP you may be better served by going to another country.

Curriculum for Under 14s

The UK Government establishes The National Curriculum for all UK State Schools. Private schools are not bound to follow the National Curriculum but in general they do, supplementing it with other areas of study as they see fit. For example, private schools will often teach modern languages, including perhaps even Mandarin, from a very early age. As always, Maths and English are the core subjects and from a parent’s perspective, you need to know if the school (a) streams children into sets, such that the more gifted can be progressed quicker, perhaps moving up a year or (b) has remedial methods to enable slower children to receive enhanced tuition. On the IB side you have the Preliminary Years Program and the Middle Years Program, but very few UK schools teach them.

A really important consideration for parents of children of preparatory school age is how well that school will prepare them for the Common Entrance Examinations at ages 11, 12 or 13 to enable them to successfully enter their senior school of first choice.

In this section , we can only scratch the surface of the various curriculums in the UK . We are more than happy to offer detailed consultancy advice on not just the right curriculum for your aspirations for your child, but also how to find the right school. It is often very difficult to transfer a child in the “mid years of 15 or 17” because of the necessity to match their existing exam boards, but we invariably find a solution.

Please contact us on +44 (0) 1622 813870 or fill in an enquiry form