Principal's Blog

Designing a curriculum to achieve our objectives for students

01 October 2023


As an independent, international school, we have the luxury of being able to determine our own curriculum.  Of course, there are, rightly, certain standards and expectations that we have to meet in order to ensure we set students up competitively for the next stage of their academic career, meet the requirements for awarding High School Diploma credits, meet requirements for external accreditation, or ensure students are appropriately prepared for external exams, whether it be College Board Advanced Placements or Pearson Edexcel IGCSEs and A Levels.  But beyond this, we have an enviable level of freedom to design our curricular programme to best enable us to achieve our objectives for Surval students.


Our Curriculum - Challenge, Own and Lead

It is easy to fall into the habit of structuring the timetable and curriculum in the way it has always been, or might be in many other schools, making small tweaks and adjustments as circumstances change.  As I reviewed our curriculum at Surval last year, I realised we had fallen into this trap and were missing the opportunity to be more creative in our approach. I found myself asking some fundamental questions: Why do students choose to come to Switzerland for an international education, and more specifically why do they choose to come to Surval?  How are we optimising this within our curriculum programmes and structures to deliver a truly exceptional education at Surval?  How are we articulating the value added of a Surval education?

The answers to these questions have been distilled partly into our COL curriculum – COL for our core values Challenge, Own, Lead which frame all aspects of a Surval education – and have encouraged us to shape our wider curriculum beyond the ever-important academic subjects into an exciting programme of opportunity, choice and enrichment.  Our COL curriculum provides a truly holistic education, inspires students to explore new interests and passions, and supports the well-being of students. In short, it enables students to thrive and flourish.


A New Curriculum to embrace activities in full

At Surval, our beautiful natural environment lends itself to a wide range of outdoor pursuits – skiing, watersports, hiking, cycling, tennis and so on – not to mention inspiring creative talents in a range of media – painting, photography, sketching etc.  With our heritage as a finishing school and surrounded by world-renowned hotel and culinary arts schools, etiquette and culinary arts electives and masterclasses have always been a feature of Surval in our 60+-year history.  In the international, multi-lingual hub of Switzerland, explicitly developing cultural awareness, insight into international relations, a love of language learning and opportunities for exploration and travel at the heart of Europe are all to be celebrated.  In our all-girls environment, we emphasise empowering girls to own their voice and actions, and step up to opportunities to lead themselves and others. 

All of these strands, previously dotted about the timetable with single periods fitted around other subjects wherever there was a slot, have been pulled together into our COL programme, now a coherent curriculum built around a series of electives and core elements and framed by our Surval Award.  A restructuring of the timetable gives prominence to the COL curriculum in the afternoon.  This has enabled us to create COL blocks which cut across grades, thus opening up opportunities for creative grouping and flexible options, and above all blocks of quality time for students to really embrace activities in full, and experience greater ‘flow’ in enrichment activities - ‘flow’ being a state which supports a feeling of wellbeing.  With this structure, we can be more responsive and agile in offering additional enrichment opportunities as they arise.  If a group wants to take a series of photography masterclasses off-site, we have a weekly 2-hour block where this fits, without disrupting other classes.  If a student wants to continue 1:1 home language tuition, we have a dedicated Language Enrichment block.  The COL curriculum enables us to give value to what we consider important in our Surval educational experience, rather than pushing these to the parameters of a student’s timetable.   


Electives and the Passion Project

All students must take a Creative, Physical and Language Enrichment Elective each term.  Alongside these electives, the Surval Core within the COL programme encompasses all those aspects essential for preparing students for life and their next steps (Life Skills – i.e. Personal, Social and Health Education, Careers and University Counselling, and Communications and Global Etiquette to build global competence and confidence in a wide range of settings – a modern twist to our traditional Etiquette programme).   

The final piece of the jigsaw is the Passion Project:  an independent research project, development of a new skill, leadership of a community initiative or participation in an online course, undertaken across the year by all students in a topic of personal interest guided by their supervisor, which will culminate in an Exhibition Day.  The passion project provides space for creativity and exploration and a sense of reward in taking ownership of the process and outcome.


The Surval Award

From the start of the year in student and parent induction sessions, the COL curriculum was presented alongside the academic curriculum to ensure it was given the credibility it deserves, and its purpose at the heart of a Surval education clearly explained.  The COL curriculum is assessed through an online portfolio where students evidence their experiences, commitment and growth through reflections and memories across the different strands of The Surval Award, which is awarded with Pass or Merit at the end of the academic year.    I have written in a previous blog about the power of reflection and the importance of instilling a discipline of reflection as a means of learning from experiences.

In university and job applications, academic results are important but alone are not enough.  Evidence of soft, transferable skills and wider interests is important.  Students need to be able to demonstrate their initiative and interest in exploring learning beyond what is taught in the classroom.  They need evidence of resilience, commitment and adaptability.  I remember the lightbulb moment for a student in the first term of introducing the Surval Award when, in writing a reflection for her portfolio, she exclaimed, this is exactly what I need for my UCAS personal statement – indeed!

And next steps?  Whilst we keep the COL programme under review and inevitably make a few adjustments, our thoughts are turning to our academic structures: are there other ways we can view our approach to timetabling academic subjects to open up similar creativity and flexibility, ensuring optimum breadth, choice and flexibility within a rigorous academic programme?  In our intentionally small school with our focus on personalisation and our commitment to tailor the academic pathways of students to meet their needs and ambitions, I believe there is further scope to be even more individualised and exceptional in our approach.