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Choosing a syllabus

Last updated: 06 May, 2009

BOARD LOAD

What should parents take into consideration when deciding between ICSE, SSLC, CBSE and IGCSE based schools? Chitra Aiyer finds out

That one? Parents must make an informed decision keeping their child’s interests in mind.
Most parents seeking admissions for their children are likely to ponder over the schools and syllabuses that would work best for their children. A few years ago, parents who did not think they were going to move from one place to another chose state syllabus schools, while parents on transferable jobs within the country chose schools with national syllabuses. For parents internationally mobile, the arrival of schools following international syllabuses has certainly come as a relief.

ICSE or CBSE?

But for the rest, who do not have their choice made easy by the nature of their jobs, deciding between the two national syllabuses, the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE) and the Indian Certificate for Secondary Education (ICSE) can be quite a preoccupation.

The CBSE board prepares the syllabus for students from Lower Kindergarten to Class 12, for schools affiliated with it. The curriculum is set by National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). The board conducts India’s two nation-wide board examinations: the All India Secondary School Examination for Class 10 and the All India Senior School Certificate Examination for Class 12.


The ICSE was established by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate. Previously called the Senior Cambridge, it was adopted for Indian requirements. The Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) is the examination conducted by the Council for Class 10 and the Indian School Certificate (ISC) is the examination for Class 12.

The CBSE syllabus follows the concentric curriculum, where the topics taught are built on top of what was taught the year before last. For example, in Science, the topics motion, force, and pressure are presented in the 6th standard and the ideas of force, frictional force, and pressure are dealt with in more detail in the 8th standard.

The ICSE board follows the spiral curriculum approach. First the basic facts of a subject are learned, then more details are introduced. The basics are re-emphasised many times over to help get them into long-term memory. “What the student studies this year is built on top of what was learnt the previous year,” says Nitya Ramaswami – Head child development and Academics at the Zee schools.

Nitya says the boards differ in how they test students; SSC exams are content based, the CBSE exams are application based, and the ICSE exams are knowledge, understanding, application and skill-set based.

The CBSE syllabus is considered intensive and the ICSE, more extensive. To elaborate, in the CBSE system of teaching, there are more objective kind of questions, which prepare students for national level competitive exams. Under the ICSE board, projects are an integral part of the curriculum, which helps develop analytical skills in a student. Latha Devraj, a practicing homeopathic doctor, has two daughters studying the CBSE syllabus.

However, her older daughter studied in the ICSE syllabus till high school. She says, “The ICSE board offers its students strong concepts since the syllabus encourages students to address a topic in detail and research it thoroughly.” According to her, students have very good grounding for mathematics in the ICSE syllabus. She adds that the portions covered under the CBSE syllabus is vast and hence requires rigorous schooling to get it all covered.

Entrance exams

Competitive entrance exams at the all-India level are based on the CBSE syllabus, as it is with IIT-JEE, AIEEE and AIPMT. Typically, parents keen on their kids taking up any of these entrances prefer the CBSE syllabus for their children.

So much so that the Treamis World School, an international school that offers IGCSE, also provides CBSE as an option, after a survey amongst software companies in Electronics city showed that people preferred CBSE over ICSE, said Dakshayini Kanna, director of the school. CBSE students also seem to have an edge over other students when it comes to taking the UPSC administrative service examinations, such as the IAS and the IPS.

However, when it comes to taking up entrance exams outside of India, for example SAT and TOEFL, teachers seem to recommend the ICSE syllabus over CBSE. In the ICSE syllabus, there’s a clear emphasis on English and its literature.

According to Nitya, English grammar is taught in a very systematic way under the ICSE syllabus. On the other hand, in CBSE schools the English taught is more functional and oriented for communication since it addresses the needs of all kinds of students, irrespective of their geographical location.

Most CBSE students say that they find it harder to switch to ICSE at higher levels, whereas ICSE students are able make the shift easily. The ICSE syllabus is quite heavy when compared to that of CBSE syllabus. An ICSE students who recently finished her 6th standard exams wrote her final exams in 13 subjects – English, Environmental Sciences, History + Civics, Geography, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Maths, Hindi, Kannada and General Knowledge.

On the other hand, a CBSE student from one of the Kendriya Vidyalas who finished her 7th standard exams wrote six papers in total – English, Sanskrit, Hindi, Science, Maths and Social Studies.

The Sri Sri Ravishankar Vidya Mandir (SSRVM) Trust runs many schools and educational institutions all over India. Reshma, the director of Academics and Training at SSRVM says that some of the schools run by SSRVM have chosen ICSE and others CBSE.

She finds NCERT’s CBSE text books are very good for explaining concepts, especially through the prescribed activities given in them. What she likes about the ICSE syllabus is the flexibility the board offers schools to include activities and subjects as per the school’s choice.

State syllabus

Interestingly most parents end up switching their children from ICSE/CBSE syllabuses to the state syllabus either for high school or for the 11th.

Subha, who is an MCA graduate and who consciously chose the ICSE syllabus for her two daughters says, “We chose ICSE because of its tougher standards. If and when the girls move to CBSE or state syllabuses, they will find it easier.”

Such a practice is mostly followed to get the basic foundation right and then switch to something easier during the higher years, so students can score better for the same effort. Shilpa, a practicing architect in Bangalore, who went to different schools while growing up, has studied under ICSE, CBSE, and the state boards at various points in time. She has chosen a school that teaches the ICSE syllabus for her son.

Board is secondary

But she, like many other parents, thinks it is the school and their interest level in teaching the kids that matters more than the syllabus itself. Nitya too agrees that education is not board-dependent. Any school that enables the growth of a child and is able to assimilate different syllabuses and methods of teaching, at least till the 7th standard, is a good school. After the 7th standard schools must adhere to the affiliated boards.

Even if the school is more important than the board, picking a board is still pertinent.  And the onus almost always lies with the parents to make an informed decision. One must look into various aspects to give one’s child the right kind of education.

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