Dubai curriculums explained

As if choosing a school isn’t difficult enough, choosing the right curriculum could have implications on where a student can continue their education

Interview, Settingup
Interview, Settingup
Interview, Settingup

What shall it be: English (known widely as British)... American... International Baccalaureate (IB)...? There’s a proliferation of English schools in Dubai, a reasonable selection following the American system and the IB is increasing in popularity.

On top of that, there are Indian, German, French, Australian, Russian, Japanese and Filipino schools in town. Deciding on a curriculum depends on where you think you may be in the next few years, which, for an expat family, is not always easy.

‘Parents pick a school according to the syllabus they want their child to follow and the university they’d like them to attend,’ says independent education consultant Francesca McGeary. ‘They don’t realise it’s perfectly okay to move about through the systems. You can finish high school with GCSEs and still attend Harvard – as long as you have the equivalent grades required.’

Don’t feel locked into a system. It is possible to change if it’s not working for you, but be aware that, once your child reaches middle or secondary school, the English system narrows down quite quickly and moves towards students choosing subjects. ‘Once a child has started along that road, you can still change, but it becomes more difficult,’ says McGeary.

With so many mixed nationality families in Dubai, parents are often looking for as broad an education as possible. ‘Many more parents are now picking IB because it’s a more holistic approach to education. There are IB schools throughout the world so their children can fit in almost anywhere,’ says McGeary.

So what’s the difference? We take a look at English, American and IB (with apologies to readers interested in other curricula).


A holistic approach to learning, students are encouraged to explore the world around them, think for themselves, form opinions, relate to others, develop fitness through sports and gain experience in taking responsibility. Year 10 marks the two-year lead up to GCSE or IGCSE (International GCSE) exams. Following these results, students aiming for university will then take
A Levels. Study emphasis in these later years is on depth rather than breadth of study.

Exams taken
Standard assessments on a yearly basis. (I)GCSEs are taken at the end of Year 11. At least five good passes are required for eventual entrance to a British university, although before that, students will have to complete two years of A Levels.

University options
Universities in the UK and elsewhere are normally acquainted with the British system and will accept students with IGCSEs, GCSEs and A Levels.

A worldwide reputation for quality, international schools following the British curriculum are comparable with UK standards. University courses are shorter due to the intensity of A Level study.

British education outside the UK is exclusively private. Depth of study means (I)GCSEs could drop to five subjects in Year 11, and three subjects at A Levels.


A holistic approach to learning that doesn’t lock children into a system, students are encouraged to explore their environment and study a wide range of subjects, even up to university level. Importance is given to the appropriate development of each child, so that subjects not mastered the first time round can be repeated. Study emphasis is on breadth rather than depth.

Exams taken
Assessment varies from school to school. In general, students’ scores are based on averages of their quarterly and semester exams.

University options
Many American universities require students to pass a college entrance exam such as SATs or the ACT, but to get into a good university or an international establishment, students will also have to take the AP (Advanced Placement), a more rigourous, college-calibre programme.

Constant assessment means students aren’t locked into do-or-die exams at the end of the programme and hard work ethics are encouraged throughout; it has a broader subject study base and the system
is flexible.

No set standards of performance means quality varies widely. There is no guarantee of a set curriculum in UAE schools.

International Baccalaureate

Aims to encourage students to have enquiring minds and a knowledgeable and caring attitude, helping to create a better world through intercultural understanding and respect (and that’s a pretty tall order). Early years concentrate on varied learning styles, middle years focus on holistic learning and in the two-year diploma programme, all students must complete core requirements including 150 hours of arts, sports and community service.

Exams taken
IB exams are taken following the diploma. Assessment takes place through numerous tests in a variety of subjects. Universities will often accept students based on their predicted grades.

University options
The IB diploma is recognised internationally by universities.

IB diploma represents the best from many different countries and provides a standard international curriculum, so it’s easily transferable between IB schools in different countries. While regarded as a tough programme, students get three chances to repeat vital exams, and the large amount of writing and research prepares students well for university life.

A rigorous programme, students must prove they can keep up. Many find it tough.

Student spotlight

Name: Poppy Pedder
Age: 17
School: Jumeirah College

What’s the best thing about being educated in Dubai?
Being brought up in such a multi-cultural environment has definitely moulded me into the person I am today: I’ve grown up with a great bunch of friends who are from such diverse backgrounds. I have my school to thank for this.

I’m loving sixth form, our common room is amazingly designed (we get our own kettle!) and our uniform has finally evolved from the nasty sludgy green colours of lower school to a conventional black, which suits everyone.

Most of my school life
has been spent here in Dubai and I’m thankful that our school has given us so many opportunities.

And what’s the worst thing?
Even though I love my school, I do have a few pet peeves – namely that art, drama and music are all regarded as secondary subjects. The facilities are very basic for these subjects.

You’ll be off to university in the UK next year. Is that something you feel you’re prepared for, having lived abroad all your life?
I am absolutely terrified to return back to the UK! Even though I go back every summer I’m still a little bit anxious to handle my own life alone in England. I feel like I have been brought up in a bubble… Everywhere outside Dubai feels like ‘the real world’.

Educationally speaking, I feel my school is helping me prepare as much as possible for university entries (my school specialises in sending students to British universities). Not only are they helping me achieve good grades but at the end of this year, after exams, my school will be providing our year with a course on how to read maps, do laundry etc. You’d be surprised how many kids in Dubai don’t know how to work a washing machine!

If you could offer students coming here to study one piece of essential advice, what would it be?
Whether it’s a part-time job or doing the Duke of Edinburgh or even just an after-school club, every little thing helps your CV. I know this rule applies wherever you are in the world, but I still find this advice quite important.

Also, make sure you know the laws here in Dubai – the legal drinking age, for example. They are quite different from the regulations in other countries!

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