International curriculum: What is special about it?

"It’s expensive and only the rich can afford it!" That’s the first thought that crosses the minds of many ordinary Rwandans when they think of a school which offers an international curriculum.
A student of Hope Academy takes a blood sample from one of the parents as another one  (right) examines the sample using a microscope.
A student of Hope Academy takes a blood sample from one of the parents as another one (right) examines the sample using a microscope.

"It’s expensive and only the rich can afford it!” That’s the first thought that crosses the minds of many ordinary Rwandans when they think of a school which offers an international curriculum. This assumption is not far from the truth. If you want your child to study in an international school, you must be ready to part with between Rwf1.5 million and Rwf4 million every year depending on the school. In fact one administrator of such a school who prefers anonymity is the first to confess that parents have to dig deep into their pockets to enroll their children in schools which offer international curricula.

“The truth is that the way it is set up makes it expensive to implement. This, of course, means that certain classes of people will be left out,” he explains. This then begs the question; what is it about international curricula that sets them so apart such that even though they cost an arm and a leg, parents are willing to pay for the enrolment of their children?

For those who have gone through  international curriculum, they say it provides a wide scope of possibilities. Martha Umuhoza, who is now waiting to join university, says she doesn’t regret choosing the Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) curriculum. “It is challenging,” she says. “It makes you an open-minded, global thinker. This makes it easy for you to fit anywhere in the world.”

Paul Swaga, formerly a teacher at Riviera High School that offers the international curriculum, holds the same view; “It is marketable. Students who study using an international curriculum can easily be admitted into an international university after year 13 (the equivalent of S.6).” Brian Ngarambe, a parent whose child is being taught using the Cambridge IGCSE, says that the world is now one global village and thus, an international curriculum helps them fit in.

However, administrators, teachers and students alike assert that there is more to international curricula than their global marketability. “Our curriculum is holistic. It addresses the different aspects of education, not just academics. We promote critical thinking, creativity, self-motivation and a love for learning,” says Hazel Cox, the school Principal of The Earth School (The International Montessori School of Rwanda). Montessori is a child-centred and independent learning approach developed by Dr Maria Montessori, an Italian physician more than a century ago.

Boniface Onyango, the Principal of Riviera High School, holds the same view as Cox adding that the international curriculum allows for flexibility and in this regard a child learns according to their personal abilities. This, Swaga, says, can be attributed to the fact that international curricula are skills-based rather than knowledge-based.

Another important aspect that international curricula have in common is constant child-assessment. Because the curriculum is skills-based. Administrators say that it’s important to find out the personal abilities of each child because this way, it’s easy to cater for their learning needs. Also it provides for a small student-teacher ratio which makes observation and identification of learning needs even easier. “At the Earth School, the teacher-student ratio is 1:12 and because of this, we are able to keep track of the progress of each child so that we know how to guide them,” Cox explains.

Global awareness versus national identity

The international curriculum seems to sweep all corners when it comes to holistic learning. Is there anything more you can offer a student than to develop their skills, become globally aware and compete favourably with everyone in the world? Yes, there is staying in touch with the realities of their own countries. This is especially important for students from developing countries.

Swaga notes that much as the case studies used in international curricula are global, they tend to focus more on western societies. Having previously taught in a school that offers both the national and international curricula, Swaga says he observed a tendency for students who had chosen an international curriculum to behave in a way that’s not aligned with the realities of their own country. Brian Ngarambe, a parent holds the same concern. He says, “The curriculum pays more attention to the international scene and doesn’t leave much space for students to learn about their own country and culture.”

For the IGCSE, for instance, the examining body is the Cambridge International Examinations. The examinations are set in the United Kingdom and the answer scripts are sent there for marking. Although administrators of schools are happy to say that the examination allows room for revision, they also agree that it is not yet streamlined; it is not-country-specific and there is a need to harmonise global awareness with awareness about the realities of the countries in which the students live.

This perhaps, is one of the major reasons why some students who study using international curricula prefer living and working in developed countries. Additionally, students from developing countries who use the international curriculum might find a smoother transition when enrolling in universities in developed countries than in their own local universities.

International schools are not totally oblivious about the need for students to learn about their countries and cultures. However, some schools maybe more enthusiastic and far reaching than others in this regard. “To build a child’s character, you must teach them about their identity. That’s why at Riviera High School, we engage them, from an early age, in talks and activities that promote patriotism, love for their languages and cultures,” Onyango says.

Other things to consider

The need to keep culturally grounded and in love with one’s country are not the only two things that parents should consider before enrolling a child in an international school. Cox believes that parents should visit the school to see if the school system matches their own philosophy.

Swaga advises parents not to shun the National Curriculum. He believes that since Rwanda is in the process of changing the curriculum to make it skills-based, it will cater for the needs of students while empowering them to deal with the challenges of their own country. “Most students who use the international curriculum want to live in developed countries. Who will develop our country if people with skills keep running away?” he asks.

At present, the commonest international curriculum in Rwanda is the Cambridge IGCSE. Other curricula include; the American curriculum; the Montessori curriculum and the Belgian curriculum.

Students share  their experience

Angela Keza
Louse Ineza Julie

Angela Keza student at Well Spring academy, Grade 11

I use the IGCSE curriculum and it gives me a sense of fulfilment because it is mind-opening. You’re able to have an independent view about different matters instead of being influenced by other people’s ideas. However, there is need for more skilled trainers.

Louise Ineza Julie, S6 student from G.S.A.D.B Nyarutarama

At my former school, we were using an international curriculum. It built my confidence, especially concerning inter-personal skills. I think they should also plan to make it mandatory for every school because it goes a long way in building skills.

Benjamin Loic
Stella Kangabe

Benjamin Loic, student at Mother Mary Complex in Kibagabaga, S3

It is excellent. I have been able to interact with students all over the world and to know about world history. It also provides for a wide scope of activities such as meditation which are important for mind stimulation.

Stella Kangabe from Well Spring Academy, Grade 11

The curriculum has helped  me discover my talents and paved a way for me to put them to use. It has also made me more competitive since I know I’m competing with people from different parts of the world.

Ornella Iliza
Simon Habinshuti

Ornella Iliza , S3 student at Mother Mary Complex

My debating skills have been so sharpened. I can confidently defend my stand in any debate and make others agree with me. Additionally, I am now more assertive about defending my rights as a girl-child without fearing what boys will say.

Simon Habinshuti student at Mother Mary complex

I used to be shy. I didn’t know how to communicate with my fellow students and teachers. But now I’m confident and my way of thinking has been well shaped since I’m fluent in both English and French.


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