One of the most popular curriculum options in schools worldwide is the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme. While many parents understand the differences between the IB and UK curricula at college level (the IBDP vs A Levels), there are far fewer who fully grasp the teaching, content and assessments employed by each curriculum throughout the secondary years.
The IB Middle Years Programme. It’s the least understood and researched of the IB programmes – yet it covers the key years in a child’s education from Years 7-11/Grades 6-10. It’s a key transitional stage when – in the words of the IBO –students are developing “a unique set of physical, physiological, intellectual and social needs and characteristics”.
It’s relatively new by educational standards but, since being introduced to the IB programme in 1994, this programme for 11-16-year-olds has been adopted by schools worldwide. It is part of the IB continuum, following the Primary Years Programme (PYP) and leading into the Diploma Programme (IBDP) or Career-related Programme (IBCP), and it can be taught over five years in full, or in two, three or four year formats.
The International Baccalaureate is the fastest growing curriculum in the world. Between 2018 and 2022, the number of IB programmes offered worldwide increased by 34%, and there are currently 1,819 schools in over 108 countries offering the MYP.
For parents choosing a school in expat-friendly destinations such as Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam, the MYP is now well-established at a growing choice of international schools. The US has always been a strong adopter of the IB and the MYP is taught at over 730 schools across the country. And, in the UK, there is a small but growing number of schools in both the state and independent sectors (currently 27 schools) that have adopted the MYP.
What is it that makes schools and parents opt for the IB MYP then, and why would you choose the MYP over other curricula including the National Curriculum for England? To help unravel the MYP, we spoke to principals from IB schools worldwide – Dubai International Academy - Al Barsha, Dubai International Academy – Emirates Hills, Impington Village College in the UK, and Chatsworth International School in Singapore.
The MYP is a framework rather than a curriculum – and rather than instructing teachers what to teach, it instructs teachers how to teach and assess students. In contrast to the National Curriculum for England (and the Cambridge International Primary Curriculum), the MYP is much less prescriptive, much more flexible. It is more interdisciplinary and has a greater focus on non-academic attributes, such as international and civic-mindedness, as well as global awareness.
Students still study a wide spread of subjects that are familiar to teachers across secondary education. In the MYP there are eight subject groups including language and literature, sciences, mathematics, design (may include resistant materials, graphics, textiles, food, computer studies), arts, individuals and societies (philosophy, geography, history), physical education and health, and language acquisition in languages including French, Chinese, Spanish and English.
The key difference with the MYP is in ‘how’ rather than ‘what’ students are taught.
As Victoria Hearn, Principal at Impington Village College in the UK explains, the MYP is cross-curricular and inquiry-based.
“Student learning is grounded in eight subject groups that enable them to connect their classroom learning to real-world experiences. Global contexts, such as identities and relationships, globalisation and sustainability and scientific and technical innovation, help students to understand why they are learning about a topic by giving them tools to connect the classroom learning to their own lives.
“The MYP’s focus on contextualising students’ learning enables them to apply their learning to real-world scenarios and experiences. Every year, the MYP provides an opportunity to teach an interdisciplinary unit, which is a unique chance for students to learn about one topic from the perspective of two different subjects.
“In Year 7, our students combine the study of literature and history, exploring how a literary or historical figure can be viewed as a victim or a villain, depending on perspective. Interdisciplinary learning and interconnected subjects deepen and broaden our students’ knowledge in addition to helping them to develop their critical thinking and independent study skills. Unlike our national curriculum, the MYP goes far beyond classroom learning to prepare young people to become inquiring caring and active learners, ready to succeed inside and outside of the classroom.”
All MYP students also complete community service known as Service as Action during each academic year of the MYP, which may be as simple as fundraising or tidying up at home or as grand as building houses for underprivileged communities in another country.
Ian Thurston, Principal at Dubai International Academy - Al Barsha, an IB continuum school in Dubai, explains why this is an important feature of the MYP.
“Whilst the Western education systems focus on academic learning, some countries will value moral education more highly; the IB tries to blend the two by understanding that knowledge is nothing if it doesn't have an impact, whilst you can't maximise your impact without knowledge.”
Schools must be authorised by the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) to offer the MYP, and teachers must be trained to teach the programme. However, they have the freedom to tailor the programme and choose the content, assessment methods and objectives – all based on the IB framework – to suit their individual needs.
It can mean a much more personalised learning experience for students – and it means that the delivery of the MYP can vary significantly by school. It’s this flexibility that is perhaps one of the MYP’s greatest strengths; schools can introduce national requirements such as the teaching of Mandarin in Singapore or Arabic in the UAE and they can run the MYP alongside national curricula.
The delivery of the MYP can only be as good as its teachers, though. Teachers often face a higher workload when teaching the MYP; it heavily depends on teachers investing time to work across departments and develop their own lessons, which can make it challenging to deliver.
The flexibility of the programme can also be a challenge, particularly for teachers who are new to the programme. Schools need to invest in professional development; the IBO runs many external workshops and trainings abroad, which can be too costly for some schools, meaning that not all IB teachers can access the training they require.
Like other parts of the IB programme, the MYP challenges traditional models of education, which are much more topic-based and focused on factual content and skills. In the IBO’s own words, the MYP “encourages students to become creative, critical and reflective thinkers” – and this is achieved by the programme’s focus on skills rather than content-based learning.
This is seen in the classrooms of Dubai International Academy - Al Barsha in Dubai, where students study subjects such as maths and literature within global contexts; they are encouraged to take control of their own learning; and they build upon skills and units of inquiry learning developed in the IB PYP.
As Principal Ian Thurston explains, the MYP is focused on developing skills for the 21st century such as critical thinking and problem-solving.
“The MYP makes links between subjects (called Interdisciplinary Units) and how this knowledge relates life. Whereas, many national curricula focus on content to learn, the MYP focuses on application of knowledge in the context of real-world events as well as aiming to develop transferable skills and Learner Attributes, which include things like being principled and caring.
“The MYP is much more than just a knowledge base, it is a holistic educational framework which aims to develop individuals who will positively impact the world for others. If you look at reforms that many national curricula have gone through recently, most of them have moved towards the MYP style.
“There has always been a perception that the MYP is not academically rigorous, however, there is evidence to suggest that students who have progressed through the IB programmes achieve better at university and start work on higher salaries as they have a solid core knowledge base, but they also have the skills to be effectively collaborating with others and applying their knowledge to unfamiliar situations.”
Halcyon London International School is the only not-for-profit IB school in London and teaches the MYP and IBDP to a small international community of around 190 students. Director of School Barry Mansfield explains why the pedagogical approaches of the IB MYP develop a unique learning experience not offered by traditional UK curricula.
"What I like best about the MYP is the focus not only on content but rather skill development. Within keeping with the IB philosophy of developing a well-rounded student, the MYP focuses on developing a range of skills within students. The inquiry approach of the MYP allows students to develop their critical thinking skills and opportunity for creativity.
"I love how each unit of study in the MYP has a global context, a lens of focus of study. It allows for organic real-life applications whereby students are empowered to take action. I also love how the interdisciplinary units, where students transfer knowledge and skills across two different subject areas."
An inquiry-led approach is important for students in these 'middle years'. Phavana Silva, MYP Coordinator at Chatsworth International School in Singapore, explains why:
"The inquiry-led approach is important as it emphasises student agency and helps students develop critical thinking, problem-solving and research skills. This approach enables students to take ownership of their learning, making it more relevant and engaging, in particular during this stage of adolescence when relevance can be challenging."
At another IB continuum school in the UAE, Dubai International Academy - Emirates Hills, Principal Hitesh Bhagat shares his perspective on how inquiry is at the heart of the IB’s approach to teaching and learning.
“The programme emphasises the development of students' skills in problem-solving, research, and self-management, and encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning and to become active, compassionate and lifelong learners.”
While less talked about than the IB PYP and DP, the MYP is an internationally recognised and respected programme, which has many benefits and strengths.
Mr Bhagat (DIA - Emirates Hills) sums up his six reasons why parents should choose the IB MYP for their child:
The MYP is certainly not flawless but there are several reasons why parents may choose the MYP over alternative curricula – and IB school leaders worldwide are generally in agreement on these.
Ms Silva (Chatsworth International School) highlights the MYP's relevance to real life, saying:
"The MYP curriculum is designed to be relevant and meaningful to students, connecting their learning to real-life issues and challenges. The MYP assesses student progress and achievement in a variety of ways, encouraging self-reflection and promoting a growth mindset."
Barry Mansfield (Halcyon) agrees that the assessment methods of the IB are one of its key strengths.
"Rather than relying on memory recall and learning for exams, students learn for enjoyment and thus are more engaged and feel more autonomy in their learning. The variety of ways in which they are assessed in the MYP caters for different types of learners and a range of real-life skills they will need beyond middle school ."
Victor De Melo, MYP Co-ordinator at Canadian International School (CIS), a three-programme IB school in Singapore, says one of the key advantages of the MYP is how it “fosters an ability to approach a topic from different perspectives.”
“By formulating questions, conducting research on topics collaboratively and reflecting independently, MYP students learn to apply their in-depth thinking and problem-solving skills to real-world situations, and take ownership of their learning.”
Mr Thurston (DIA - Al Barsha) highlights the importance of inquiry-based learning in these middle years.
“Inquiry develops a way of thinking for students; realising that there is not always one single way to achieve an outcome or to present your findings… We're preparing students for a world of work when there's not always someone to give you the answer or the process, we want students to improve on processes already known and this is most successful when their inquiry skills are honed from a young age.”
The MYP is also inclusive for students of all interests and academic abilities. It’s easy to see why the IB is widely regarded as being more rigorous; with eight subjects from a range of disciplines and the addition of compulsory elements like the personal project, the MYP can feel more demanding than I/GCSEs.
Unlike the UK system, IB students can’t choose any combination of subjects, so there if there’s one subject group you want to avoid or are weak in, this may feel ‘harder’ work. However, this can also be seen as a strength of the IB as students are encouraged to learn time management and self-discipline, skills that are incredibly useful when progressing onto college and then university.
The IBO opens itself to scrutiny, and research plays a key role in the ongoing development of all four IB programmes. As Olli-Pekka Heinonen, Director General of the International Baccalaureate Organisation, said in a 2022 article:
“For students to thrive and make a difference, we are called to engage in open, forthright conversations about what we teach and how we teach it; how we can help our students become the agents of change we so desperately need.”
Recent studies of schools across the world have highlighted that students in Hong Kong performed significantly better than non- MYP students in the IBDP, and MYP students in the UK have a greater level of open- mindedness towards cultural differences.
In a 2017 study by the University of Nottingham of the MYP in the UAE, school leaders, teachers, students and parents highlighted “the flexible framework of the programme, its adaptability to the local context and its emphasis on international-mindedness”.
Students enjoyed linking skills learnt in subjects such as maths to the real world; expat parents with a tendency to move countries appreciated the “portability” of the programme; and teachers liked the flexibility to “be more creative, to do more reflection”.
For some IB schools, but certainly not all, it’s a natural progression to move from the Primary Years Programme (PYP) into the five-year MYP, and then onto the Diploma or Career-related Programmes (IBDP and IBCP).
At continuum schools like XCL World Academy in Singapore, where the IB is in their DNA, there is a strong belief that the PYP and MYP offer the best preparation for the IBDP.
Kylie Begg, MYP Co-ordinator at XCL World Academy explains how the MYP is part of a much wider IB programme.
“The Middle Years Programme and the Diploma Programme are part of the International Baccalaureate continuum. There is continuity of subject content and a 'common language' of how we describe learning attributes and skills. The holistic nature of the MYP means that students study all eight subjects. This means that they have the experience and knowledge to make the best choices for their IB Diploma courses.”
At Halcyon in the UK, students start the MYP in Year 7 having studied a range of curricula at primary/prep schools elsewhere. Mr Mansfield explains why students do not necessarily need to have studied the PYP beforehand.
"Families that choose to have their children learn within the MYP framework come with an open-minded approach to learning and at times it can be a shift from more traditional curricula. The transition is smooth, and with time both students and parents understand the MYP assessment and approaches to learning."
The breadth and depth of the MYP provides a solid foundation for the IBDP. Students complete a Personal Project, an independent project, where students research and develop a product to address a global issue, before embarking on the IBDP’s Extended Essay. There's also the Service as Action element, which is an excellent springboard for Service in Creativity, Activity and Service in the IBDP.
Mr Thurston (DIA – Al Barsha) highlights the importance of MYP students learning through the context of real-world issues rather than learning isolated content.
“The MYP is the best preparation for the IB Diploma as it is a continuation of the skills that are expected. However, that does not mean that schools can't blend other curricula into the IBDP requirements – it just needs to more carefully thought about. All of the best schools will deliver a broad education in the mould of the MYP, often without even knowing, simply because it is excellent education.”
While the MYP prepares students for the IBDP it is not a prerequisite for it. The programmes were launched several years apart, and the transition between the two is not always seamless.
There are many IB schools worldwide that offer a blended curriculum that misses out the MYP entirely – switching from the IB PYP to I/GCSEs or from I/GCSEs to the IBDP. And then there are schools that follow the MYP for Years 7-9 before moving onto I/GCSEs for Years 10-11.
These include Nexus International School in Singapore, which switched from the National Curriculum for England to the MYP for Years 7-9 in 2021. The English Schools Foundation, the largest provider of English language education in Hong Kong, also recently adopted the MYP for all seven of its secondary schools in Years 7 to 9.
Impington Village College is the only state school in the UK to currently offer the MYP, the IBDP and the Career-related Programme (IBCP); Principal Mrs Hearn explains why this non-selective East Anglia secondary school decided to teach the MYP from Years 7-9 and then switch to GCSEs.
“In addition to ensuring that students are well prepared for the rigour of GCSEs, students who complete the MYP are well prepared to continue their IB learning journey with the CP or DP. However, should they choose to study A Levels, the skills and knowledge that they develop through the MYP will support students during their A Level studies,” says Mrs Hearn.
Michelle Dickinson, Head of School at One World International School (OWIS) in Singapore, says that her school chose IGCSEs over the MYP (it also offers the PYP and the IBDP in its curriculum) because the certification holds the school to a defined standard.
Ms Dickinson explains:
“The standardised and externally moderated assessments provide a rigorous and consistent global understanding of each IGCSE qualification by universities across the world."
The MYP is far less exam focused than the National Curriculum for England and I/GCSEs, and it has a more varied means of assessing students, including more internal assessment and project work as well as option external, online exams (eAssessment).
At first glance, the MYP's assessment can appear complicated and confusing. From another perspective, it is more suitable for students in the 21st century than other exam systems, and its blend of portfolio work and exams is more aligned with the modern world.
Mr Thurston (DIA – Al Barsha) explains:
"As information is widely available via phones and laptops, the idea of learning facts and figures is now outdated. MYP assessments are about being able to choose the correct knowledge for an unfamiliar situation.
"Many assessments will be set in the context of a topical issue at the moment - for example, sustainability or gender equality, and students will be expected to show how their academic knowledge can be used to understand or address these issues."
There are two key components of the MYP that students complete independently – internally assessed Service as Action activities and the externally assessed Personal Project (completed in their final year).
Students spend a minimum of 25 hours on their Personal Project, although many students spend much more. This extended project can be as varied as filming a documentary, building an electric guitar, composing and recording original songs, writing a novel or building a model of a wind turbine machine.
As well as building on skills that students may have developed in the Primary Years Programme (PYP) Exhibition, the MYP Personal Project helps to prepare students for the IB Diploma’s Extended Essay two years later. It requires research, thinking, communication, social and self-management skills rather than focusing on the retrieval skills needed for exams.
Ms Silva (Chatsworth International School) explains why these projects help studies to consolidate their learning.
“Service as Action is a foundational element of the MYP. It seeks to develop caring members of the community who act to make a positive difference to the lives of others and their environment. Students learn the value of community participation and gain a deeper understanding of the issues facing their local and global environment.
"The Personal Project provides an opportunity for students to undertake an independent and age-appropriate exploration into an area of personal interest. Through the process of inquiry, action and reflection, students are encouraged to demonstrate and strengthen their approaches to learning (ATL) skills, which also prepares them for the Extended Essay in the DP."
There has been a reluctance by schools in the past to adopt the MYP because of its lack of certification, unlike I/GCSEs; questions were also raised about how robust and reliable internal MYP assessments can be if not externally validated. However, since 2016, schools have been able to register for optional eAssessment in parts of the MYP; students then receive a formal, internationally recognised Middle Years Certificate if all criteria are met.
Exams are entirely in an electronic format, setting the MYP apart from I/GCSE and other curricula; it also makes the MYP far more adaptable to situations such as school closures when written exams cannot be sat.
Chatsworth International School is one of only a few international schools in Singapore to implement the full MYP eAssessment. Explaining why, Ms Silva says that the MYP assessment "evaluates student's performance in seven exams, providing a comprehensive understanding of their abilities and achievements", and "the online format allows for the use of technology to enhance assessments, such as digital submissions and multimedia presentations".
Students are externally assessed through online exams in maths, language and literature, sciences and individuals and societies, and produce coursework for language acquisition, design, arts and physical and health education. Not all schools have adopted this certification process, and it’s certainly something worth checking when looking at an MYP school.
Mr Thurston (DIA – Al Barsha) explains the strengths of the MYP Certificate.
“Many subjects are online exams, representing how most secondary age students work now in school and how they are likely to work in their future employment. It also proved resilient to the recent Covid-19 pandemic when external exams were still able to proceed despite all the restrictions countries enforced. In addition, there are portfolio subjects, where students will present projects that they have developed over sustained periods of time.
"This wide variety of assessment components means the MYP Certificate is far more than a measure of knowledge and arguably the most complete assessment of student learning and capabilities currently offered around the globe.
The maximum total score for the IBMYP certificate is 56, and a grade 1-7 is assigned to each required eAssessment. Students must achieve a total of at least 28 points with the highest grade from each subject group contributing to their final grade.
As well as giving students a formal, externally assessed and internationally recognised qualification, Mr Bhagat (DIA - Emirates Hills) says that the MYP equips students with academic and lifelong learning skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow.
“One strength of the MYP Certificate is its focus on interdisciplinary learning, which encourages students to make connections between different subject areas and apply their knowledge in real-world contexts. The online format of the assessment allows for flexibility and convenience for students, a more interactive and engaging assessment as well as access to a wide range of resources and materials.
“In comparison to the GCSE curriculum, the MYP Certificate has a more holistic approach to education, with a greater emphasis on interdisciplinary learning and the development of transferable skills."
Both programmes can have a direct and positive impact on university admissions but while GCSEs and the MYP will help you in your future career, they are not final. Universities may want to see a particular GCSE grade in English, maths or science for certain degrees. Similarly, the IB is well-regarded by universities worldwide, particularly for the global outlook that it adopts.
Universities are only likely to look at MYP grades for subjects such as English, maths and science for certain degrees such as law or medicine, when they will typically ask for “GCSE or equivalent passes”.
The MYP’s more holistic approach to secondary education is key to creating well-rounded, university-ready students though. Mr Thurston (DIA – Al Barsha) explains why.
“Through the MYP, students will have a broad range of academic subject knowledge, they will have skills of inquiry, collaboration and application, they will see links between individual academic subjects and will understand how to reflect on their learning - both academically and from a service perspective. Because it is such a well-rounded programme with built-in experiences for students, they are oozing the soft skills that universities are crying out for.
"Whilst academic achievement is an obvious requirement for universities, the most competitive universities will also want to see what students have done created independently, offered through service or achieved in leadership - all of these elements are built-in to the IB programmes meaning schools don't need to add it as a bolt-on."
The question of whether to follow the MYP or choose another middle years education should certainly be considered as students start their primary education – and understanding the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses of this IB pathway is important.
Whichever pathway you choose for your child, it can lead them to university and career success – and in university lecture theatres around the world IB students sit side by side with students with UK, US and other global qualifications. It’s a not a question of which one can get you there, but which one offers the right pathway for you.