Even as our school boards make big changes and the government invites private capital to improve education, IGCSE and IB schools are making major headway. The author studies the trend.

As globalisation sweeps across our lives, it is reshaping even the landscape of our educational systems. The last decade has seen a significant increase in the number of international schools that offer either the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) or the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme across the country. Today, there are 310 IGCSE schools in 18 states, while the number of IB schools has risen from 26 in 2005 to 104 this year. An increasing number of parents are willing to pay the high fees that these schools charge to get their children a ‘global’ education that includes verdant campuses, plush classrooms and a host of eclectic activities from carpentry and music to taekwondo and hiking. The question, however, is how different are these schools really? Behind the sheen and the gloss, are there substantive distinctions between the education they offer and that offered by schools affiliated to Indian boards?

One thing that all the heads of the international schools agree upon: their curriculum emphasises conceptual understanding at a deeper and more reflective level than that followed by traditional Indian school boards. IGCSE, overseen by the University of Cambridge, offers over 70 subjects and focuses on students applying subject knowledge to new and unfamiliar situations. The Geneva-headquartered IB specialises in three mandatory components — the study of the nature of knowledge, an extended 4000-word essay based on self-directed research, and exercises that emphasise creative thinking, physical exertion and community service.

Indian boards typically tend to focus on content, with teachers usually asked to follow a prescribed textbook. In contrast, as Dr. Shalini Advani, Director, Pathways School, Noida, says, the teachers in her school are expected to build concepts and are given a lot of latitude to choose the content that might illustrate a particular concept. For example, in order to understand why people migrate, students could be introduced to situations where there was an exodus of people because of natural calamity, economic betterment or religious persecution. The teacher may thus introduce children to European Jews before World War II or the Indian diaspora in South Africa in the early 1900s or even the recent calamity in Uttarakhand. The content thus loses preset boundaries and the teacher gets to expand and hone children’s burgeoning conceptual understanding.

According to Dr. Bindu Hari, Director, The International School, Bangalore, students gain a “broad range of cognitive skills” in the IB programme whereas traditional curriculums focus on subject-specific knowledge. Many international schools adopt Dr. Benjamin Bloom’s hierarchy of learning objectives to foster higher-order thinking skills. Teachers may thus give students activities that require them to exhibit their understanding of the topic and its application in real life. Or a project that uses their analytical, synthesising and evaluative skills. Says Gita Jagannathan, Managing Director, APL Global School, Chennai, “The IGCSE curriculum design demands and encourages research-oriented and collaborative work. The ideal is to create autonomous learners.”

The other thing these schools do is provide diverse routes for growth and development. For example, Mussoorie’s Woodstock School offers activities ranging from cookery and animal care to car maintenance. At Hebron School in Ooty, Dr. John Barclay, the principal, says that about 30 per cent of the students study music for the Royal School of Music exam.

Another key aspect is sensitivity to the differing needs of learners; realising that all children don’t learn at the same pace or the same way. Most of these schools offer programmes for gifted children and those with special needs. This aspect is also better addressed because the class sizes are smaller, with 15 to 25 students, thus making personalised modifications possible. As Dr. Barclay says, “Teachers are trained and expected to practise differentiation in teaching — to ensure that they cater to the range of abilities in the class.” This becomes additionally important given that international schools tend to have children from different nationalities and cultures.

The chief drawback, though, is the considerably higher fees, which means these schools do not cater to children across the economic spectrum, despite offering a few scholarships for underprivileged students. With fees ranging from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 10 lakh per year, despite their growing popularity, international schools remain the choice of a miniscule minority. However, as Dr. Advani says, several parents disillusioned with mainstream schools are taking the plunge even if the fees are a stretch because they view education as a long-term investment. Thus far, most students come from privileged homes and go abroad for higher education; however, as the schools get more popular, students are opting for Indian colleges as well.

Srabani Roychoudhury moved her child from a CBSE school to Pathways in Class VI. She wanted her son to receive an education that helps him “analyse and sieve out information”. The only downside she sees is that “in the process of knowing about the world, India gets marginalised, especially in Social Studies.” For Nirmala Varatharajan, whose child is in APL Global School, the biggest draws were the small class size and the varied choice of subjects. Ganga Amritesh, also a Pathways parent, says the school puts the onus of learning on the child and not the parent, thus making the child take ownership of her education.

But are these schools making any impact on the traditional schools? Most ICSE and CBSE school principals surveyed for this article said their schools continued to be the first choice for parents, and that they had not necessarily changed their approach in response to international schools. However, Meera Issacs the principal of Cathedral & John Connon School in Mumbai, said that her school had added Advance Placement courses offered by the College Board of New Jersey as well as ISC to help students wanting to go aboard for higher studies.

Well-known educator Howard Gardner argues that the world of tomorrow will value specific ‘minds’ or competencies. For example, individuals who have expertise in particular domains will be sought after. Here, the Indian boards score, since their curricula emphasise disciplinary knowledge. On the other hand, international schools cultivate children’s synthesising skills where they have to glean information from multiple sources and evaluate it in a meaningful way. Likewise, creative thinkers are more likely to emerge when children are required to think outside the confines of textbooks.

The other plus of traditional Indian schools is that they promote what Gardner calls the “respectful mind”. Given our country’s rich and multihued heritage, most Indian children encounter different languages, religions and cultures at school, and learn to live with them. Also, the Right to Education Act has ensured with varying degrees of success that children from all economic backgrounds learn, play, fight and eat together. In fact, this is one aspect where international schools might have an added responsibility — that of ensuring that their students are sensitive to the harsher realities of life.

From an overall perspective, though, having a variety of educational boards makes a lot of educational sense by catering to a far broader spectrum of students and offering wide choices. Ideally, all schools, both international and Indian, should share best practices, so that children from all social strata benefit. The same school offering more than one board and a variety of subjects, both academic and vocational, would be the best way for children to feel less straitjacketed and get more out of schooling.

The author is Director, Prayatna. E-mail: arunasankara@gmail.com

From the students:

The IB is probably the most inclusive and challenging academic structure I have come across. The marking criteria is competitive and subjective with regard to creative disciplines. Our class got to teach at a school in Karaikudi for four days. -

Saraswathi Menon, Former student

I joined halfway through 9th grade in 2010. Moving to India from the U.K. was a massive culture shock but my school helped me settle into India and find a comfort zone. Within the first month, I felt at home.

Shwetha Sairam, Grade 12, APL Global School

At our inter-school event, two friends and I ran a business that made a profit of Rs 10,000 in two days. At our annual night camp, we stay up all night playing soccer and basketball and watching movies on a giant screen.

Neel Kejriwal, Grade 12, APL Global

My school has offered me a skill-based education that is focused not only on understanding concepts but applying these in everyday life. The international exposure gives us an unparalleled edge in today's world.”

Supriya Ganesh, Grade 11, Pathways