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We contacted the office of the IPC for information to round out our own article describing this interesting and fast growing curriculum (now almost 1,300 schools in over 63 countries are using it, 1000 of those in England, Wales and Scotland alone). They offered to write it for us, and we thought what they sent was so thorough and spot on (and certainly all you'll ever need to know about the IPC!), we'd publish as is.   

Learning with the International Primary Curriculum

It has always been important for children to receive a great education. In the challenging global, interdependent world of the 21st century it is more important than ever before. 

But it’s also more difficult than ever. In the same way that far fewer children play football because there are so many other competing things for them to do, so it’s far harder to help young children learn in school when other parts of their lives can seem so much more attractive, and when so many children are in homes – professional and non-professional – where time for parents to be attentive to their children is at a premium.

This is the paradox we inhabit. The need is great and, at the same time, the opposing forces are more powerful than they’ve ever been. 

Getting a primary curriculum right is more difficult today than it’s ever been because it has to meet multiple goals. Of all those goals, the most essential ones are:

  • Rigorous learning: Paying attention to essential and transformational knowledge, to the development of key skills, and to the slow, steady progress towards deep understanding across a broad range of subjects.
  • High levels of children’s engagement: Making sure that this rigorous learning can win the battle against superficially more exciting out-of-school activities so that a) children enjoy it and stick to it and b) come to like learning enough to want to continue throughout their lives. And incorporating easy, accessible opportunities for parents to get involved in order to encourage and support their kids.
  • International, global and intercultural awareness: So many of our problems at local and global level are caused by different groups not knowing or respecting each other. So many of the key problems we face today will only be solved through local and global cooperation. So many of the opportunities open to our current generation of children will be in countries and cultures different from the one in which they are growing up.
  • The development of personal dispositions: Creating opportunities for children to develop qualities that will help them on their journey through life as individuals, citizens and partners. Qualities such as adaptability, morality, respect, resilience, enquiry, cooperation, communication and thoughtfulness.
  • Supporting teachers: Providing teachers with everything they might need to make the curriculum work to its very best for every single child.
  • Supporting schools: Providing all that a school requires to be confident in delivering good practice 

A curriculum that thoroughly meets each one of these priority areas is not an easy trick to pull off. But feedback from schools, parents, teachers, children, inspectors and authorities tells us that one curriculum – the International Primary Curriculum – is well on the way. 

If that’s the case, how does the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) ensure rigorous learning? What does a high level of engagement mean in IPC practice? What about the development of personal dispositions?  And what is it about the IPC that has gained the commitment of over 1,300 schools in over 63 countries around the world in just ten years? 

Engaging Children

Well, for a start, we all know that children learn best when they want to learn. That’s why the IPC has over 80 different thematic units of learning; all child-friendly, modern-day topics appealing to all ages of primary children. Themes such as Time Detectives, Airports, I’m Alive, Inventions and Machines and Global Swapshop. Teachers use the theme as the hook, the learning platform and the ‘wrapping paper’ in order to excite and engage children. 

The theme enables young children to remain motivated through the learning of science, geography, history and so on. It also allows them to make purposeful links and connections throughout their learning and to see how their subject learning is related to the world they live in.

Within each theme, the IPC suggests many ideas for collaborative learning, for active learning, for learning outside the classroom, for role play, and for children learning from each other. “All these approaches are crucial factors affecting engagement,” says Director of the IPC, Steven Mark. “Teamwork with a purpose, where every person plays a vital but different role, enables children to become deeply engaged in their learning, especially when that learning is relevant to their interests and needs.

At the same time, there’s a huge flow of knowledge and many skills are practised and developed.” For example, in the IPC Rainforest unit children, through role play, debate the impact of slash and burn from all perspectives; from those of the indigenous forest dwellers to the prospectors. “This is something that we have continually prioritised and developed within the IPC,” continues Steven. “Child-friendly themes involving issues relevant for today’s children and creating opportunities for them to make their own choices in the progress of their learning. As a result, the learning becomes inspiring and fulfilling for them.”

The IPC’s engaging approach also encourages parental involvement as children, inspired by their learning, talk freely to parents and family members about what they’ve done at school and often choose to continue their learning at home. Parental involvement is also promoted through learning-focused letters, extended learning ideas, and end of unit ‘Exit Point’ events.

Rigorous Learning

Each IPC unit incorporates most of the core subjects including science, history, geography, ICT, Art and PE and provides many opportunities to incorporate literacy and numeracy. Subjects are only included into each theme if there is a direct link between the required learning and the ideas behind the theme. Each subject then has a number of learning tasks to help teachers to help their children meet a range of learning goals set out in the curriculum.

Take, for example, the IPC Chocolate unit. In history, children explore the discovery of chocolate, the period it was discovered, the motivation for discovery and the changing attitude to chocolate through the ages. In geography they look at the countries that grow cacao and how particular localities have been affected by its production and by slash and burn. They look at the links between countries that grow cacao and countries that produce chocolate. In art children look at how chocolate is sold and how packaging is designed. In science, children use the Chocolate unit to look at the energy values in foodstuff and to explore the effects of heating and cooling. 

The IPC learning goals are deliberately explicit; designed to make sure that teachers distinguish clearly between children’s learning of knowledge, skills and understanding.  

IPC Director, Steven Mark points out that knowledge, skills and understanding may all be examples of learning but that each is learned differently, assessed differently and, therefore, IPC believes, should be taught differently. “There is absolutely no point in talking about rigorous learning if we don’t make explicitly clear the nature and implications of the learning we want children to achieve,” says Steven.

So each IPC unit has a detailed teaching framework incorporating very explicit skills. “As skills take time to develop, children need to have the chance to continually revisit and practise these key skills,” he explains. “To develop these skills, individuals need context and purpose. Which is why the IPC suggests real life, practical learning experiences to help them. All our units encourage children to work individually and together towards learning goals. It’s important that children can see that they are still learning skills found in history and geography but set in the context of the big picture theme.”  

Intercultural Awareness

Each IPC unit has embedded within it, learning-focused activities that help young children start developing a global awareness and gain an increasing sense of the ‘other’. Every unit creates opportunities to look at learning of the theme through a local perspective, a national perspective and an international perspective. 

With schools in over 63 countries learning with the IPC, opportunities abound for children to share their local experiences related to an IPC unit with children in dramatically different environments. Take the children at the International School of Iceland last year, who shared their first-hand experiences of the erupting Eyjafjallajökull volcano with their IPC friends around the world learning with the IPC Active Planet unit. These children have listened to, communicated with and learned from each other in a real world context.  

Developing Personal Dispositions

The personal dispositions we form as individuals do not come from reading about them in a book or discovering them spontaneously. But rather, they are established over time with constant use and that’s how the IPC views children’s learning of personal skills. So instead of ‘add-on’ lessons about such elusive personal skills as morality or respect, the opportunities to experience and practise very specific personal dispositions are built into the learning tasks within each thematic unit.

In addition, many of these tasks are group activities which encourage children to consider each others’ ideas and opinions, share responsibilities, respect other people’s views and communicate effectively. For example, in the IPC Water unit, a group of children have to make a water turbine. They start by creating if from cardboard and, through their own research and development  - along with gentle guidance from the teacher - work out how to improve their design to make it more resilient and effective. Not only are they learning about the power of water, but at the same time these children are developing the skills of cooperation, enquiry, communication and adaptability.

Supporting Teachers

Each IPC unit has a very structured yet flexible teaching framework providing teachers with a series of learning tasks. These are designed to achieve the learning goals through creative, meaningful and memorable learning activities that appeal to all learning styles and are relevant for all children of all abilities. In addition, these learning tasks have been carefully designed to help children build upon their development of individual skills from previous IPC units. 

However, the learning tasks are purely a guide and provide plenty of scope for creative teaching, personalisation to the class and the locality, and development on the theme.

For UK and British international schools, the IPC learning goals are cross-referenced to meet the National Curriculum guidelines of England and of Wales reassuring teachers that their children are learning in a rigorous as well as engaging, creative and relevant way.

Supporting Schools

The IPC was originally designed purely as a curriculum. But ten years of growth and development have resulted in a vibrant, global IPC community of over 1,300 schools in over 63 countries as diverse as Swaziland, Malaysia, Qatar, Japan, Russia and Brazil. In the UK the IPC community embraces almost 1,000 schools including state primaries plus academies, independent schools, special schools as well as several highly active Local Authorities. This provides a sharing of best-practice and minds encouraged through blogs, podcasting, conferences, summer schools and more, ensuring that no school, however remote, feels isolated. 

Measuring Success

So what about the feedback from teachers, parents, inspectors and authorities? Headteacher Alex Butler of Hampstead Norreys Church of England Primary School in Berkshire which was awarded Outstanding School of the Year in the 2009 League Tables of English Primary Schools sums up the feelings of many: “The IPC provides you with a very clear teaching framework to follow which we personalise to meet the needs of our children in our locality.

Some people have said it’s an off-the-shelf option but that’s not true; there’s huge depth to the learning process, a real understanding of what ignites children’s interest, true expertise of community and international-mindedness, a very careful balance of knowledge and skills in every unit, and some really creative ideas for teaching and for learning with a flexibility to make it your own. Because of doing something quite innovative such as the IPC, everyone is watching you! Our success in the League Tables and the Ofsted inspection have proved to our Local Authority and to other schools that the IPC really is making a difference for us. It’s particularly down to the engagement and to the focus on learning.”  

In a quite different setting, Headteacher Margaret Goodwin at Warren Farm School in Kingstanding, Birmingham, credits the IPC as the catalyst for “lifting the gloom of low aspiration and under-achievement hanging over the school and the entire area.” With one-sixth of her parents unemployed and claiming benefits and many as third-generation unemployed, education has not been seen as a priority.

“But the IPC is breaking that spiral,” says Margaret. “It’s challenging attitudes, creating aspiration and engaging both our children and their parents.” Parent-child workshops linked to IPC units are generating 97% attendance by parents or grandparents at Warren Farm and such activities are encouraging parents to continue supporting the learning back home. “Some of my parents are even going on to do further education for themselves,” says Margaret. “The IPC has helped them as well as their children realise that learning can be meaningful, inspiring and fun.”  

For more information about the IPC or to visit an IPC school near you contact the IPC at 0207-7531-9696 or visit www.internationalprimarycurriculum.com

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