At nearly 20 years old, NCEA is up for what could be some of the biggest changes in its existence, with a national review well underway.

The vast majority of New Zealand secondary schools offer NCEA as their qualification. The standards-based system was established on the principle that all students should have opportunities to succeed and to fulfil their potential.

While some schools have opted out of offering NCEA from the beginning, a larger number of schools offer the national qualification along with international alternatives.

The UK-based Cambridge International (formerly Cambridge International Examinations or CIE) system is offered at a number of schools, both private and public, including Auckland Grammar.

In a statement earlier this year, headmaster Tim O’Connor said the system worked well for students because the “content is prescribed and rigorous, and it prepares students well for university pathways”.

“Our teachers tend to love Cambridge courses because of the opportunity to teach some high-level concepts and some curriculum content and skills that are no longer offered in New Zealand qualifications. It means we attract specialist teachers in their field who want to be able to share their knowledge, and our young men can have high-level, academic conversations and debates,” he says.

About 4500 Kiwi students sat the exams in Years 12 and 13 last year. It is a truly international qualification, with two million students enrolling worldwide.

Is it the chance to compete on a global scale that drives some schools to offer the Cambridge exams? Or, as O’Connor says, is there something else they offer that NCEA doesn’t?

Recently, O’Connor has announced plans to create a new and original qualification system for Auckland Grammar students in Years 10 and 11, as an alternative to both Cambridge and the NCEA.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is a qualification currently offered at some schools in New Zealand.

The IB Diploma Programme is a two-year course for students in Year 12 and 13. The programme emphasises the importance of high academic standards, the international value of knowledge, critical thinking, active citizenship and cultural understanding.

The qualification has been offered in conjunction with NCEA for a number of years at Auckland private school St Cuthbert’s College.

Principal Justine Mahon says an important part of the school’s decision to offer the IB as well as NCEA centres around parent and student choice.

“I think it’s great to have choice in the education sector,” she says. “We see the two qualifications in a completely parallel relationship – and not in a hierarchical sense at all.

“I think that in some schools, international qualifications are seen or marketed as being somewhat superior but we don’t believe that here at St Cuthbert’s. They are both good, rigorous systems and we’re careful to promote them as such.”

When it comes to the practical running of such a system, Mahon says the skill and expertise of St Cuthbert’s College teachers come to the fore.

“I like to think that we have great confidence in our teachers, because they ensure that all our students, regardless of what qualification they’re studying, are well taught and prepared.

“But of course there are practical challenges. Timetabling, for example, is very carefully done, and done a long way ahead. There are also PLD considerations – offering two qualifications means our teachers need to be up to speed on both. We have to ensure that IB girls still sit the NCEA scholarship exam, for example,” she says.

Mahon points to the broader range of subjects offered through the IB system, and says that different qualifications can suit different types of students, so choosing the right system is important.

“I believe the girls get the chance to study a broader range of subjects, for longer, and some students really like that. For the ones who have decided already what they want to study, NCEA can be a good option.

“Whether they choose NCEA or IB, they will need good advice around subject choices. We can structure either programme around the busy lives of our students; for example, some of our students are elite sportswomen. NCEA can be easier to structure around travel and other things they are doing.

“When we’re talking about both qualifications, we always position them equally and look at each student and their individual circumstances to help make a choice.

“I do think that regardless of what they choose, students need to be well rounded. We guide them carefully. We really like the philosophical framework of the IB learner profile because it resonates with our school values. It has breadth and it works well with NCEA too,” says Mahon.

David Boardman is the senior school principal at Auckland’s Kristin School. He’s been involved with the IB for the past 14 years in both the UK and New Zealand as a teacher, examiner, internal assessment moderator, and IB diploma coordinator, and is on the Standing Committee of IB Schools Australasia (IBSA).

Kristin School was the first IB World School in the country, and now offers three of the IB programmes: Primary Years Programme (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP) and the Diploma Programme (DP).

Like Mahon, Boardman says the initial decision to offer a dual-pathway model in the senior school was based on student choice.

“Students do not all achieve their best by following one model of teaching and assessment,” he says.

“By offering the IB Diploma alongside what was to become NCEA, we catered for a wider range of learning and assessment styles. Alongside this the IB’s philosophy of internationalism and working in a global context, the need to study a second language, including service in the curriculum and having a broad range of subject areas was an excellent fit with what Kristin saw as important for its students.”

Kristin offers both the IB and NCEA qualifications. In a practical sense, this is done by ensuring all students sit NCEA Level 1 in year 11, then allowing them to choose a future pathway for the senior years.

“In the Junior and Middle Schools, all students follow the PYP and MYP programmes. When students reach Year 11, they currently sit NCEA Level 1 and then chose which pathway best suits their individual learning style for Year 12 & 13,” says Boardman.

“At Kristin, we are lucky to have yearly cohorts of approximately 170 students with around 50 per cent of students choosing NCEA or IB.  This means that IB Diploma and NCEA classes are run separately, which is beneficial, as in some subjects there is limited overlap of content. The teaching and assessment styles are also different in NCEA and IB, which would make teaching both in the same class difficult and not confusing for students.”

Is there anything challenging about offering both qualifications at Kristin?

“In a school of our size, no,” replies Boardman.

“We do not hold one qualification above the other; they are just different and suit different students. We have a Dux of both NCEA and IB.

“In smaller schools the need to have separate classes and the difference in number of subjects required for NCEA and IB, combined with the core of Theory of Knowledge, Extended Essay and Creativity, Activity and Service may make running dual pathways challenging.”

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