Every year, parents new to the challenges of educating their children confront an essential question:

Should you send your child to an international school or to a government school?

It’s not just diplomats and luminaries who ask these questions – it’s also parents who seek a good education, one that promises a course of development for their child in line with international standards and that will ensure a secure future for their families in a world of modern competition on the strength of a well-educated child.

At the same time, international schooling is expensive – international schools are typically privately funded and therefore are unsubsidized by government; the cost of undertaking the curriculum also tends to be significantly more expensive, ranging from $3000 on the lower end to $30000 and above per year in US dollars for the highest-ranked international schools (for those of you who are curious, the most expensive school in the world is Institut auf dem Rosenberg or Le Rosey at about USD150000 annually, depending on which reports you believe).

With that in mind, here is a particular case study comparison between the national curriculum of one specific country (Malaysia’s SPM) and that which is provided by Cambridge (IGCSE). Even if you aren’t from Malaysia, it’s worthwhile to think about the differences between your national curriculum and what you would get in the IGCSE, because some of the differences between the curricula of different nations and the IGCSE that you may observe will rhyme.

Surface Level Differences

Between the SPM (and many national curricula or standardized exams), there are surface level differences which are immediately apparent to many parents.

Namely, the IGCSE exam is international in scope and moderated and administered by Cambridge International Education (CAIE), thereby operationalizing an international standard the reputation of which is linked with that of Cambridge University.

On the other hand, the Malaysian SPM is administered by Malaysia’s examinations board (Majlis Peperiksaan Malaysia), in line with the way that each country has national examination boards that determine educational standards, incentivize the development of particular forms of excellence, and differentiate students who are applying to local universities.

The IGCSE is taken by students worldwide, and it is administered across multiple time zones in order to allow for exams to be conducted asynchronously while at the same time minimizing the chance that exam papers will be leaked across time zones.

SPM, on the other hand, is administered once a year between February and March, exclusively for Malaysian students who are enrolled in the National education system.

The Problem

Beyond these surface level differences, though, this discussion is phrased in terms of a vague and ambiguous notion of what the advantage of sending a child to an international school might actually be, if there actually is an advantage.

In many cases clarity is lacking, and many parents do not know how exactly the experience their child could differ and therefore how their child could benefit if they choose to undertake one curriculum over another.

This post aims to resolve the problem conclusively through a discussion of our favourite subject: English.

To do so, we will move past the vagueness and compare the two curricula using the most obvious difference: the exam papers that students have to take, and the document that shows you explicitly and clearly what the two different curricula are evaluating.

Ready? Let’s go! 

Both SPM and IGCSE require students to complete two papers, but the content is quite different across the curricula.

This is good, because it allows us to easily compare the exam papers that students will take across the different possible curricula.

Let’s look at the differences between the 2021 SPM English TRIAL paper for Johor and the corresponding first language English paper for the IGCSE, beginning with…

SPM vs. IGCSE English: Paper 1.

(Note that the IGCSE papers come with an “Insert” with each paper, and that the insert is a series of texts (3 texts for Paper 1, and two texts for Paper 2) that students have to read in order to answer the questions in the exam. )

SPM 2021 Trial Paper for Johor, Paper 1.

IGCSE 0500 First Language English, October/November 2021, Variant 1


On a point of immediate surface level difference, what you will notice is that the SPM English Paper 1 requires students to answer multiple choice questions, while the entirety of IGCSE P1 is a written exam. 

Now, let’s look at the content of the SPM exam.

In the SPM paper, note that the questions are based on relatively short and low-complexity texts.

Part 1’s Questions 1-8 are based on very short texts and merely require factual responses. 

Part 2’s Questions 9-18 are vocabulary questions and require students to fill in suitable words to match the context of a given passage. 

Part 3’s Questions 19-26 is a set of questions based on a passage, and the focus is understanding the content and context of the passage in order to obtain answers based on inference or comprehension. 

Part 4’s Questions 27-32 asks students to fill in blanks with provided sentences in order to ascertain whether they are able to understand how to do so.

Part 5’s Questions 33-40 requires students to match the individual sets of notes about online learning to the statements provided in 33-36, and finally to retrieve words from the provided text to fill in the blanks to sentences provided in 37-40. 

Now, let’s compare that to the IGCSE’s Paper 1. 

1a) and 1c) require you to identify things from the text about what the writer is doing. Not too difficult.

1b), 1d), and 1e), however, require you to explain – an exercise that requires you to read the text and to realize that it does not explicitly say why life is easier during extreme heat than in a time of incessant rain, then to reinterpret the statement in light of the question and to answer it accordingly; this requirement to explain is not present at all on the SPM English paper. 

1f) proceeds to up the ante again, by asking students to write a summary – something that is not expected of students at all in SPM English – and also to write the summary based on a particular context or prompt (I cannot count the number of times my students have deviated and written summaries without regarding the prompt!)

Now, let’s look at Question 2.

Q2 is a deep dive into comprehension and asks you to identify and explain certain phrases in the text, with a particular focus once again on using your own words to do so.

In particular, 2a) requires you to identify phrases in the text that correspond to paraphrased versions of the text, requiring you to identify the paraphrases in another form and within the original text.

2b), on the other hand, requires you to fashion a direct explanation for the words that have been underlined in text, in context.

2c) requires you to select an example from the text in order to explain how the writer is suggesting the feelings of the writer about a certain matter.

2d) is a question about Writer’s Effect, which requires students to explain how writers use language to convey meaning and create effect

Now finally, let’s look at Question 3.

Question 3 requires students to write the words of an interview, from between 250-350 words, based on the content of Text C.

The questions that you see in the Question 3 generally focus on creating a brand new text on the basis of ideas that one has to derive and read from the content of an existing text, which means that there’s a strong need for reading comprehension and the ability to understand the significance, main points, and implications of the arguments that have been made by an author; this requirement is not present in SPM English.

What can we see from the comparison between SPM and IGCSE Paper 1 for First Language English?

The SPM English Paper 1 exam seems to focus more on basic comprehension skills and vocabulary usage, with students being asked to answer multiple choice questions, fill in the blanks, and identify correct answers based on provided passages. This requires a fundamental understanding of the language, vocabulary, and the ability to comprehend straightforward texts primarily for their content rather than for the sake of making commentaries on language.

It’s also worth noting that the SPM exam uses multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank type questions, which typically doesn’t allow for as much flexibility or nuance in responses as free response questions.

On the other hand, the IGCSE First Language English Paper 1 demands a more advanced understanding of English language. Students are required not only to understand the texts that they are assigned, but also to interpret, analyze, and provide reasoned responses. The requirement to write a summary based on a specific context or prompt, for example, necessitates a higher level of comprehension and analytical skills than merely filling in blanks or answering multiple-choice questions. Furthermore, questions such as identifying phrases that correspond to paraphrased versions of the text or explaining the writer’s effect require students to have a strong understanding of various literary techniques and the ability to analyze and interpret language at a deeper level, for instance by making inferences, which is not required in SPM, which focuses primarily on the events or facts that are being communicated in the course of the texts rather than the language that is used.

In terms of skills required to succeed and to fashion successful responses, the IGCSE exam requires a greater breadth and depth of skills compared to the SPM exam. Not only do students need a strong understanding of English vocabulary and grammar, but they also need the ability to interpret and analyze text, understand and explain various literary techniques, and effectively summarize and provide reasoned responses to prompts. This requires a greater level of critical thinking and analytical skills, making the IGCSE exam potentially more challenging than the SPM exam.

SPM vs. IGCSE English: Paper 2.

Let’s continue by looking at the Paper 2 for SPM, and the corresponding Paper 2 for the IGCSE.

SPM 2021 Trial Paper for Johor, Paper 2.

IGCSE 0500 First Language English, October/November 2021, Paper 2, Variant 1.

Let’s first talk about SPM.

In the Part 1 question for the Johor SPM Trial Paper 2 for 2021, you are required to write an email of about 80 words to a friend. It’s rather clear what is being requested of you, since the questions that your friend wants you to answer are quite clearly outlined in the prompt – he wants you to talk about what he should prepare for the event, where the event should be held, and who else should be invited.

In Part 2, you have to write an essay of 125-150 words to discuss your ideal local holiday destination, and once again, you are given ample direction to write your response, and are requested in this instance to talk about the reasons for your choice and how you would spend your holiday on a budget.

Lastly, in Part 3, you have to write a text in about 200-250 words in accordance with several different text types – in this case, for Question 3, a review is required; for Question 4, a review is needed. For Question 5, a story is required.

The upper bound of words that is expected is therefore 80 + 150 + 250 = 480 words.

Now, let’s talk about the IGCSE Paper 2.

Unlike the SPM Paper 2, you are given an insert, and you need the insert in order to answer Question 1, which is a directed writing question in which you are, in the case of this paper, asked to write a magazine article on the basis of views elucidated across two separate texts with word counts of about 400-500 words each.

Here, you must understand the views that have been communicated, evaluate them, and then upon synthesizing the views as provided, discuss your own views about the best ways to approach urgent tasks or decisions, and ultimately, write a piece that ranges from 250-350 words.

Question 2, on the other hand, is where descriptive writing and narrative writing come in, and students are expected to write 350-450 words.

I guess if you’re here and you’ve seen our numerous samples, you already understand that these essays facilitate a ton of creativity and require students to develop strong rhetorical and literary skills in order to excel in in order to create pieces that not only wow examiners, but also create a sense of awe, emotion, and joy from their readers as they craft written works that recruit the very best of their language skills.

Now, let’s compare them both.

In the SPM English Paper 2, students are asked to write in response to specific prompts. These prompts provide a clear structure and direction for the student, outlining the content and context of the responses. The student’s ability to answer these prompts appropriately, employing the correct tone, structure, and content, is primarily assessed. The questions range from writing an email to a friend, to penning a short essay on a local holiday destination, to producing a review or a story. The total word count that students can be expected to write is around 480 words.

Comparatively, the IGCSE First Language English Paper 2 requires a more advanced and nuanced understanding of English language and literature. The students are provided with an insert, which they must comprehend, analyze, and use as a basis for their responses. The first question requires the students to synthesize views from two separate texts and provide their own perspective on the issue at hand. This demands not only comprehension but also evaluative and critical thinking skills.

The second question in the IGCSE paper requires either descriptive or narrative writing, requiring the student to demonstrate creativity, a strong command of language, and an understanding of literary and rhetorical devices. This not only requires the student to write effectively but also to elicit emotional responses from the reader, a task that requires a sophisticated use of language and a deep understanding of how to structure and develop a narrative. The expected word count for this paper is considerably higher than that of the SPM paper, ranging from 250 to 350 words for the first question, and 350 to 450 words for the second question alone.

In terms of complexity and difficulty, the IGCSE Paper 2 is more challenging than the SPM Paper 2. It requires students to demonstrate a wider range of skills, including comprehension, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation, as well as narrative and descriptive writing. Moreover, the lack of specific prompts in the IGCSE paper means that students must be able to independently structure their responses and develop their ideas, skills that are essential for higher-level writing but are not explicitly tested in the SPM paper.


Overall, based on the comparisons provided and to the extent that that comparison carries external validity, it appears that the IGCSE First Language English exams are more challenging and require a broader and deeper set of skills compared to the SPM English exams.

Paper 1 of the IGCSE exam requires students to demonstrate comprehension, interpretation, and analytical skills at a much deeper level than the SPM exam. Rather than simply understanding the content of the texts and responding to straightforward, factual questions, students must be able to infer meanings, identify and explain literary techniques, summarize complex texts, and provide reasoned responses. This necessitates a higher level of critical thinking and a greater command of the English language. For students preparing for the IGCSE exam, they may find it more challenging to develop these skills and may require more practice and guidance to understand and respond to the types of questions asked.

For Paper 2, the IGCSE exam requires students to write longer pieces, synthesizing information from provided texts, and construct narratives or descriptive essays that elicit emotional responses from the reader. This requires not only a strong command of English grammar and vocabulary but also a deep understanding of literary and rhetorical devices, the ability to structure and develop a narrative, and the creativity to engage and move the reader. The IGCSE exam also does not provide as much specific guidance or structure for the responses as the SPM exam, requiring students to independently structure their responses and develop their ideas. Preparing for the IGCSE exam may therefore require more practice in creative and critical writing, as well as more time spent reading and analyzing various types of texts to understand how to effectively use language and structure a narrative or argument.

In contrast, the SPM exams seem to focus more on basic comprehension and writing skills. While they still require a good understanding of English language and the ability to respond appropriately to prompts, the questions are more straightforward and provide more specific guidance for the responses. The total word count for the SPM exams is also considerably lower than for the IGCSE exams. Students preparing for the SPM exams may therefore find it easier to understand what is expected of them and may not need to spend as much time practicing higher-level writing and analytical skills.

In conclusion, while both exams test important English language skills, the IGCSE First Language English exams appear to be more challenging and require a greater range of skills. A student of similar ability would likely find the IGCSE exams more difficult and would need to spend more time and effort preparing for them. However, the skills learned in preparing for the IGCSE exams could be valuable for further studies and careers that require advanced English language skills.

The IGCSE First Language English examination fosters a broader and more advanced set of skills. It emphasizes not only comprehension and vocabulary, but also deep analysis, interpretation, inferential thinking, and critical evaluation. In addition, the IGCSE English examination encourages creative and persuasive writing, with a focus on evoking emotional responses and articulating thoughtful arguments. These are all advanced language skills that are valuable in many aspects of higher education and professional life, such as academic research, business communication, journalism, law, and many other fields.

Moreover, the IGCSE English examination offers a globally recognized qualification, which can be advantageous for students seeking to study or work abroad in the future. It provides a rigorous and comprehensive foundation in English that is respected by universities and employers worldwide.

However, it’s also important to acknowledge the reasons why some students might still choose to take the SPM English examination. One factor could be cost, as the IGCSE examination tends to be more expensive due to its international recognition. The SPM English examination, on the other hand, is more affordable and accessible for many students.

Another consideration is the relative ease of the SPM English examination. For students who struggle with English, the SPM examination may be more manageable and less stressful. It focuses more on basic comprehension and vocabulary, and the questions are more straightforward, making it easier for students to understand what is expected of them.

Finally, the SPM English examination is more closely aligned with the Malaysian curriculum, making it a more natural choice for students who are already studying within this system. The content and style of the SPM English examination may therefore feel more familiar and comfortable for these students.

In the end, the choice between the IGCSE First Language English and SPM English examinations is a very individual matter, and it depends on a variety of factors, including the student’s abilities, aspirations, financial situation, and educational background. Both exams offer valuable opportunities to develop English language skills, but the IGCSE First Language English examination may offer more long-term developmental prospects due to its greater emphasis on advanced language skills and its international recognition. However, the SPM English examination remains a solid choice for students seeking a more accessible and affordable way to demonstrate their English language proficiency. In the future, we will investigate whether the English as a Second Language qualification is comparable to the SPM examinations, but for now, I hope that you’ve enjoyed this piece and that it helped you in the process of decisionmaking!

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