What makes a qualification ‘international’?

Sponsored: Peter Monteath explains how Cambridge International gives schools the confidence to try international curricula and diversify programmes

When people think of international qualifications, they often assume they are offered by international schools, teaching (mostly British) children in expatriate outposts. While once the case, we now see our curricula increasingly used in schools that serve the local population. Parents and school leaders worldwide recognise the benefits of an international education; expanding horizons for learning, opening students to intra-cultural opportunities, supporting global mobility and encouraging multilingualism.

Cambridge International works with over 10,000 schools in 160 countries, offering curricula and examinations to schools all over the world. But it’s not just our reach that makes us international. 

A global outlook runs through all that we do, right down to the exams themselves.

A world of choice

Our schools represent a huge range of circumstances and have a wide variety of needs. At Cambridge International, we offer more than 200 individual subjects and schools are able to choose the subjects that suit their requirements. We offer languages that UK boards cannot justify due to low entry numbers, such as Afrikaans, Bahasa Indonesian, Dutch, Greek, Korean, Malay, Thai and Turkish. Cambridge IGCSE is also available in subjects such as enterprise, world literature and global perspectives – subjects that respond to interests and priorities of our schools worldwide. We also reflect a global outlook where a UK board might be more Anglocentric. For example, our English literature syllabuses reflect texts written in English from all over the world – including Ireland, US and other English-speaking countries. 

Autonomous design 

Schools within national systems can find themselves reacting to sudden educational changes that come with changes of government or new education policies – as reflected in education press all over the world! Cambridge qualifications are revised on a six-year cycle. Changes tend to be evolutionary, not revolutionary, reflecting feedback from our schools, as well as the changing nature of the subject as informed by subject specialists and universities. Truly international curricula are independent of any one national system, and therefore are removed from any politicised change. 


For many candidates, English isn’t their first language. Students taking our exams can expect questions to be written in plain English, avoiding use of the passive, and mindful of context. For example, it’s vital that the question must test the understanding of an area of chemistry, and not the understanding of the preamble to the question. Our question-setters will consider the reading load of a question and the accessibility of the words used. In addition, international language is used – for example, ‘a bag of crisps’ would become ‘a snack’ – and attention is given to international and cultural sensitivities.  

Overcoming operational challenges

As the world becomes increasingly global, schools tell us that their students are excited and motivated to sit the same examination as their peers in many other countries. 

The standard of Cambridge exams is the same no matter where in the world they are taken, which means they are trusted and valued by universities and employers worldwide.

While students are measured against the same standards, the question papers they sit are not identical. We vary them according to world time zones. If we didn’t do this, we’d have to make all students take the exam at the same time – with some students in exam halls in the middle of the night! 

In some subjects we have as many as seven exam papers per year to allow for time-zone variants – which gives schools seven sets of past papers per series as a resource! For us, it’s an operational necessity and shows our commitment to exam security. We have to be confident that, for example, a student who sits the paper in New Zealand can’t tweet answers to a friend in the UK.

These elements have made Cambridge International accessible to a wide range of schools, including growing numbers of state schools, either as part of a bilingual stream or alongside the national programme. The accessibility, practicality and stability of Cambridge International gives schools worldwide the confidence to try elements of international curricula to diversify their programmes and give their students access to qualifications used all over the world. 

For more information, visit cambridgeinternational.org

Peter Monteath, is Regional Director (Europe) at Cambridge Assessment International Education

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