5 ways to balance two curricula at once

Mixing a national curriculum and an international one is a tricky task, but this head thinks she's finally cracked it

Jennie Devine

Curriculum planning: How international schools can balance two curricula at once

For the third time in my career I find myself leading an international primary school with the goal of integrating the British curriculum and another completely distinct curriculum taught by local teachers in my host country. 

While the Primary Years Programme (PYP) encourages and even insists upon this collaboration across the various subjects and curricula, the National Curriculum does not always merge easily with other objectives and approaches. 

However, after two previous attempts at past schools that were laden with issues, we are making real progress at my current school – a feat even more remarkable considering that we are a National Curriculum/Montessori school.

How international schools can use two curricula

Though we have just started the process, there are some lessons to be learned about what is contributing to our success where previous efforts ran aground.

1. Speak a common language

This seems obvious, but unless all interested parties understand each other, the process will stall. 

Ensuring that bilateral translation is provided and in place for all meetings will allow teachers to not only access the discussion but also feel valued. 

It puts all parties on an even footing and pre-empts teachers using the language barrier as an excuse to opt out of the process.

In my current school, we have one teacher who does English to Spanish translations and one who does Spanish to English.

In past schools, our bilingual secretaries did translations that were edited and proofread by coordinators. In Ecuador, we sent important documents (policies, handbooks, etc) to professional translators.

Yes, it takes longer to conduct meetings in more than one language, but the focus should be on team building and inclusion, rather than on efficiency. 

2. It’s not you vs us – it’s about them

Teachers are protective of their programmes and can be unhappy if they perceive that "their" programme is being undervalued.

As such, it is important that staff receive a clear message that both curricula are key to the success and identity of the school; it is not about individual teachers or programmes, it’s about building a meaningful and integrated learning experience for the students. 

Make this emotive case clear from the start and you can create a clear sense of purpose.

3. You don't always have to meet in the middle

It would be great to have an even mix of changes between both curricula. This, though, is unlikely.

For example, compared with some curricula, the National Curriculum has more flexibility with topics and timings. The Italian curriculum, by contrast, has an incredibly detailed and specific list of geography and history topics that pupils must cover each year, in a particular order.

Trying to find common ground meant that the English teachers had to move around or change history and geography topics to collaborate with their straitjacketed Italian counterparts. 

At my current school, the British teachers are collaborating with Montessori staff.  Once we understood the constraints of Montessori programme, we realised that the English teachers needed to be the ones to adapt their planning.  

Outlining this from the start gives staff an understanding of the context for any change.

4. Find an ally

It helps if everyone is completely on board to make whatever changes need to be done. As noted, though, this is unlikely.

As such, it pays to find an ally, an enthusiastic adopter or an expert who will provide a role model for more reluctant staff.

It allows teachers to see what is possible and gives them a starting point. It is especially useful to get all the coordinators on board, though with more traditional curricula or for long-standing members of staff, it may be politic to leave experienced staff in place.

Having one or two unofficial cheerleaders can change the opinion of more entrenched staff.  It can also assist those teachers who aren’t used to thinking laterally or making connections between curricula. 

If any of your staff members have PYP experience, they could be useful to help others see these conceptual connections.

5. Go slow

Trying to integrate both curricula in one year is a daunting and destabilising prospect.  Start with even one unit of work and build from there. 

In my previous school, my subject coordinators and I were too ambitious and initially set out to do comprehensive audits of objectives, mapping the two programmes together and coming up with a final collated curriculum that met the needs of both. 

While this approach theoretically could have worked, the time needed to do this job was immense and the bits we did manage to do left everyone feeling disenfranchised.

This year, my Montessori counterpart and I have planned a term of poems and songs from around the world. Our science, history, geography, maths and other language topics will be done independently, but we are building a bridge between the two curricula. 

Next year, no doubt, we will be able to find even more opportunities for collaboration, especially as we both are keeping each other up to date on what the class is doing. 

We are all feeling positive about what we have already accomplished and what we plan to do in the future.  After two less successful attempts, I’m hoping it’s third time lucky.

Jennie Devine is an international headteacher who has worked in Italy, Colombia and Ecuador. She is currently head of primary at the Montessori School Almeria, in Spain

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