American Curriculum Vs British Curriculum: How to Make the Right Choice for Your Child

Apr 15,2024

The American curriculum and the British curriculum are two of the most popular and well-respected educational programmes taught by international schools. Through our private international schools in the UAE, we teach both curricula because each provides excellent, well-rounded education.


However, making a choice between the American curriculum vs the British curriculum deserves careful consideration. Each offers distinct benefits for its students. Here, we explore the contents and ethos of each curriculum and explain the difference between the British education system and the American education system.  

The British Curriculum: What Makes It Stand Out

Our British curriculum schools’ teaching follows the National Curriculum for England, a set of standards that is overseen by the UK government. Here are three core features of the British curriculum that set it apart.


1. Its Key Stages

  • Foundation Stage is a play-based curriculum for children three to five years old that prepares them for formal schooling. 

  • Key Stage 1 introduces the basics of reading, writing, maths and science to children five to seven years old. Teachers also timetable a broad range of foundation subjects like art and music. 

  • Key Stage 2 is the final stage of primary school for children seven to 11 years old. By the final year, children become independent readers and writers with a solid foundation of maths skills. 

  • Key Stage 3 for children 11 to 14 years old moves into the secondary phase of education. Students continue with a broad range of subjects but specialist subject teachers now lead classes.

  • Key Stage 4 for children 14 to 16 years old culminates in GCSE exams. Students typically study around 9 subjects including core English, maths and science classes, plus other GCSE subject options that they wish to pursue.   

  • Key Stage 5 is the final two years of school and usually involves studying three or four subjects intensively for A-level examinations. 


2. Its Subjects and Assessments

Up to Key Stage 3, all students in the UAE learn:

  • English 

  • Maths

  • Science

  • Arabic

  • Islamic studies (for Muslim students)

  • Moral, social and cultural studies 

  • Humanities subjects  (i.e., geography and history) 

  • Art and design technology

  • At least one language (i.e. French or Spanish)

  • Music

  • Computing and IT

  • Physical education

  • Personal, social and health education (for non Muslim students) 

In Key Stages 4 and 5, students have more autonomy over their subject choices. Schools may add extra courses for this age, such as economics, extra languages, or technology. 


Assessments happen at the end of each key stage, increasing in formality as children move through the stages. Secondary school assessments are challenging. This is one reason why GCSE and A-level qualifications command respect, particularly from university admissions officers. In most subjects, exams test students’ knowledge and skills rather than coursework. 


3. Its Ethos

The British curriculum is known for its high standards and emphasis on academic excellence. Students are taught by expert teachers, trained to teach either the primary curriculum or a specialist subject at secondary level. These teachers encourage their students to grow into independent learners and develop as critical thinkers.

The American Curriculum: What Sets It Apart

In the US, there is no universal curriculum. Instead, schools combine the American educational ethos, the US Common Core Standards, and relevant state standards to create a bespoke curriculum. In the UAE, our American curriculum schools select one set of state standards to follow. For example, Al Khaleej International School follows Californian standards. 


Here are three of the key characteristics of the American curriculum and its differences from the British curriculum. 



1. Its Stages

  1. Preschool prepares children three to four years old for more formal learning.

  2. The elementary phase begins with Kindergarten at five years old and ends in Grade 5 (11 years old). Like the British primary curriculum, this phase promotes solid foundations for later learning.  

  3. The middle school years run from Grade 6 to Grade 8 (ages 12 to 14). As students mature, teachers expect them to take increasing responsibility for their own learning. 

  4. The high school years include Grade 9 to Grade 12. Students study a broad curriculum through High School through both core and elective courses. Some students may elect to take Advanced Placement (AP) classes to boost their university admissions chances. 


2. Its Subjects and Assessments

The American curriculum is well-rounded for all grades. Students typically have fewer elective subject choices in high school compared to British curriculum students of the same age.


Teachers grade their students regularly. A to F grades are dependent on their performance in tests, written assignments and oral presentations. Graduating students demonstrate their knowledge and skills in three ways:

  • The high school diploma. Students earn this through regular attendance, completion of assignments, and through participation in class.

  • Schools combine grades for each subject to create a GPA (Grade Point Average). A high GPA is crucial for university admission success. 

  • SATs. These are standardised tests also used for US university admissions. 


3. Its Ethos

American curriculum students benefit from a broad and balanced range of subjects right through school. Extracurriculars are also a core element of American education. The range of sporting, artistic, musical, performance and academic activities on offer encourage students to be well-rounded.


Teachers use inquiry-based methods that encourage independence. Hands-on and discussion-based activities are central to American curriculum classes. 

The American Curriculum vs the British Curriculum: A Summary 

Here are the main similarities. Both curricula: 

  • feature in English-speaking international schools in the UAE

  • nurture independence and critical thinking

  • are highly regarded by universities

  • offer an excellent education

Differences and Potential Benefits of Each

Here are some points to consider when choosing between the UK vs the US education system for your child. 

  • Through studying the British curriculum, your child may benefit from elective subject choices in their last years of schooling. Students study fewer subjects but in greater depth to complete A-levels compared to the high school diploma. The British route could also be beneficial if they intend to study at a British university as their education will be more in line with most of their peers. 

  • On the other hand, your child may prefer to maintain the study of a broad range of subjects for longer. Studying the American curriculum, attending AP classes, and taking the SATs in an American high school environment could be beneficial for those seeking to enrol in US universities. 

  • The bias of exams over coursework in the British education system compared to the American education system may or may not suit your child. 

How to Choose Between the British School System Vs the American School System

There is no simple answer to the question ‘Which education system is better: the UK or the US?’ The response is dependent on which is the best fit for your child.


In the UAE, GEMS teaches the British curriculum at over 25 schools, including:

We also teach the American curriculum at three schools:

We welcome you and your child to visit our schools and see both the British and American curricula in action. This will show you how both can provide an enriching learning environment where your child can fulfil their potential.

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