South Africa writes the National Senior Certificate (NSC) based on the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) for Grades R-12.
Its purpose is to give “expression to the knowledge, skills and values worth learning in South African schools.” This is not much different to other examining boards around the world. So why does one need to choose A Levels instead?
South Africa’s difficult and complex past requires its educational philosophies to be specific to the needs and requirements for a developing country and a comparatively young nation. The NCS’s purpose “aims to ensure that children acquire and apply knowledge and skills in ways that are meaningful to their own lives. In this regard, the curriculum promotes knowledge in local contexts, while being sensitive to global imperatives.” As I said above, with such an approach, South Africa’s philosophy for its educational system is much like any other country, promoting the learning of educational skills. It is further emphasized that one of the principles of the NSC is to promote active and critical learning and promote the study of high knowledge and high skills. Its aims are also to promote critical and creative thinking and use science and technology effectively and demonstrate an understanding of the world as a set of related systems by recognising that problem solving contexts do not exist in isolation. Reading further about the NSC, one sees how learners are taught to navigate in a way in which beliefs, bias, and propaganda should not distort how we interpret and represent past and present events.
Whilst the above can specifically be related to a study such as History, learning the skills of interpretation in other disciplines can also offer the learner a method of avoiding the pitfalls of distortion. In this way, learning to navigate through competing and conflicting theories of life, produces positive outcomes of balanced and not distorted views of the world. Whether History, Physics, Life Sciences or Geography as learning areas are offered by countries’ education systems as, for instance, in Australia, the method and approach are not that different from a country such as South Africa. In Australia, the aim in education is “to discover and develop each individual’s abilities and full moral excellence in order to better serve society.” Education in New South Wales aims to instil “critical thinking in students, assisting them to reflect on their role as active decision makers in society” … and “develop student interest in key philosophical thinkers, problems and arguments” and “by applying this knowledge to social dilemmas through communities of inquiry, students challenge assumptions and beliefs and build their capacity for critical reasoning and ethical decision making.” Likewise, the Scottish educational system aims to make students develop into successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors (referred to as the “four capacities”). It is clear from the above that there are overlapping aims in the educational systems of all these different countries, which is to produce learners to participate in good citizenship, tailored towards their countries’ specific needs. What can never be forfeited in any educational system is that students, albeit in South Africa, Australia or Scotland, should be required to interpret information, not merely regurgitate facts. The art or science of interpretation and higher order learning is learnt from the skills of the trade.
The British system is no different either: the GCSE, AS-Level and A-Level courses aim to promote the study of practical knowledge and skills in any of the subjects offered. The difference in the British system however is that the students are assessed at the end of the programme which does not include School’s Based Assignments (SBA) as in South Africa (except for the BTEC courses – Business, Psychology, Engineering, Sport and Art & Design). This makes studies in the British System more challenging and, for practical purposes, they are at a higher level than in many other countries, certainly South Africa. Whilst this is said, a South African Grade 12 Qualification can lead to entry to some British universities such as the University of Edinburgh and the University of Exeter, where it states that “students from South Africa will normally be considered with the Matric – National Senior Certificate (NSC) or Independent Exam Board (IEB)”. However, different British university departments have different requirements which need to be noted and which are verifiable from the Internet. It would be good for any student wishing to study abroad, whether in Australia, Asia Europe or the Americas, to engage in some in-depth research for this.
Why then GCSE or AS-Levels/A Levels?
Whilst some British universities recognise the South African Matric (NCS), there are degrees or levels of acceptance, especially for careers that require Mathematics, Science and Engineering. Even if you have done well at school for the NSC examinations in these areas, you will have to sit for further entrance exams if you want to study the sciences or mathematics of medicine or engineering in many of the Universities in the UK. If you have corresponding A Level qualifications, it will make it easier to get a place, as A Levels are at a higher level. However, studying A Levels is not only incredibly challenging but also exciting as one of the British educational sites explains. They cite no less than six reasons for a student wishing to engage in further studies, to take A Levels. One is that the British educational system is highly respected the world over as it comes with a long, uninterrupted academic tradition, and where necessary has received modifications; two, it is almost essential (although not exclusively so) to have A Levels to get into a British university or similar institution; three, English is an international language and the more one masters it, the better the prospect for work (notwithstanding available apps to translate); the UK as a place of study whether it be in the south or north, is attractive, and for the benefit of foreigners, tourism is fully geared for with a great deal of history to see; five, one ventures into new territory and so makes new friends and establishes new networks; six, A Levels boost job opportunities. For further information on studying AS and A Levels you can go to https://www.theuniguide.co.uk/advice/a–level–choices/how–are–my–as–and–a–level–studies–structured
One of the Boards offering A Levels is Cambridge International based in Cambridge, UK. Its main aim is to teach thinking skills, which are a set of transferable skills, such as critical thinking, reasoning, and problem solving. It does not really matter what the subject is that you are studying, at Cambridge International, students are taught these skills to apply across a wide range of subjects and which they can apply to real world issues. This is quite different from rote learning or parroting the facts. One subject area that one tends to think of being just facts, is History. History, however, is not just about facts; one must guard against accepting others’ beliefs, bias and propaganda that can distort the way we interpret and represent past and present events. Cambridge International will enable students to develop an ability to approach unfamiliar problems, produce strategies to evaluate the different and diverse ways for problem-solving. To achieve these aims, students are taught and trained to put aside their own views and prejudices, and look at the evidence (using sources). From this method, students learn how to make balanced, informed and reasoned decisions and judgements, from which they then can construct evidence-based arguments. This method and approach applies not just for History, but in most areas, where the teaching produces independent-thinking skills and builds confidence which take students to the workplace for tackling complex and unfamiliar situations, leading to still higher education, or for more professional employment. It is my belief that more and more schools or educational systems in South Africa such as Curro and others, will turn to A Levels, as attested by the following link which explains the Cambridge International A Levels https://www.curro.co.za/media/fpvcwxj0/cambridge–a–and–as–levels.pdf There are also other UK Boards you can choose which you can see at https://www.britishcouncil.org.za/exam/school/choosing/exam–board
In my 42 years of teaching, I have taught Economics and History at A Level (Cambridge), as well as English and Geography at GCSE Level. I have found this teaching incredibly challenging but at the same time interesting. We have already said that A Level is at a higher level than the South African NSC. I recently returned from St John’s College Cambridge in the UK on a six months’ sabbatical, and from this visit, I now have a better understanding of the nature of the Cambridge educational system, which I have taught for so long. The learning and development of skills are emphasized above all, as well as cross-curricular studies which makes the method of study layered, interesting and more challenging. For this reason, these qualifications are sought after in the areas of the world where a Western style of learning is employed as well as areas such as Singapore and Hong-Kong. This educational approach will equip a student for almost any field that she / he wants to enter.
At the same time, I would like to say I also thoroughly enjoyed teaching the South African National Senior Certificate (NSC) and the International Exams Board (IEB) and have great admiration for how the education policymakers are endeavouring to redress the imbalances created by an unjust past, to forge ahead to produce good citizens through education. To teach the South African system however has been less academically challenging. The British system is not faced with the same challenges as a country like South Africa, and its education system never suffered the tragic disruptions that the South African education system suffered and is still suffering from. A Levels, therefore, is a different model and has been a model implemented almost uninterrupted for 75 years now, for students with different aims and demands, than students who intend living and staying in South Africa. However, studying the GCSE, AS and A-Level courses are exciting and can lead to positive outcomes for the student’s future. The school in Rondebosch, Western Cape, Learning Unlimited (LU), is doing wonderful work in providing students wanting to study GCSE, AS Levels and A Levels.
Dr Paul Leonard Murray, BA, MA, Doctor of Philosophy in the Philosophy of History (D.Phil., Uni Pretoria); Doctor of Philosophy in History (PhD), Uni of South Africa.
30 April 2023.
Paul Murray has been teaching since 1982, at various schools, including History, Economics, Italian, History of Art and Latin. He has written and edited several books and is currently an archivist at Bishops Diocesan College Rondebosch (the views he has expressed in this article are purely his own and unrelated to anyone else and no-one else can be held accountable for them other than he).
 Summarised: https://www.education.gov.za/Curriculum/NationalCurriculumStatementsGradesR-12.aspx
 Summarised: https://www.education.gov.za/Curriculum/NationalCurriculumStatementsGradesR-12.aspx