Why the Cambridge Assessment International Examinations are so important for South African students

Why should you consider following the Cambridge curriculum in which Learning Unlimited specialises? There are several reasons, but the most important is that Cambridge studies truly make a student university-ready to an extent to which our current, much less advanced NSC curriculum does not.

A second reason is the prestige and international recognition of Cambridge qualifications – given their connection with one of the world’s great universities. There is no shortage of evidence that our South African matric graduates are not university-ready. Statistics show that roughly 80% of those who enrol as first year students at UCT, do not graduate 3 or 4 years later. Cambridge studies genuinely prepare students for university because the curriculum is much more demanding and academically rigorous.

Learning Unlimited has extensive experience in teaching Cambridge IGCSE, AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A-Levels in a wide range of subjects. For those who find these terms unfamiliar, it is perhaps best to think of AS levels as comparable to matric standard grade and A-Levels as comparable to matric higher grade. Therefore, in England, should you wish to study a subject at university, you must have passed your A-Levels in it. IGCSE studies come earlier and prepare you for AS levels.

I am an English teacher who has taught IGCSE, AS and A-Level English students, as well as some matric pupils, and therefore have some experience of both worlds. In conversation with me the Director of Studies of a very fine private school whose Grade 11 and 12 students follow the Cambridge curriculum exclusively in their final high school years, said that English A-Levels were at least 18 months ahead of our matric syllabus not only in terms of the material covered but also the standards by which students are marked and assessed. She added that this was no less true of other subjects such as mathematics, physics, biology and chemistry. This is a huge gap and makes itself felt in several ways.

Even where there are common topics and examination questions, the level demanded of a student in AS, and especially A-Levels, is much higher. I have seen things like essays on a novel or Shakespeare receive an A or distinction when submitted locally, but similar material submitted by an AS or A-Level student will only receive a C or D.

However, not only are standards of assessment much more stringent, but the work required is much more demanding. For instance, in A-Level English language exam papers there are textual analysis questions that assume an altogether higher degree of complexity than in our local matric. A student is not only expected to analyse the language and style of a given passage but must then also, acting on specific prompts, write a companion piece of his/her own, and then do a comparative analysis of the language style of his/her piece and that of the original.

It is impossible to do well when tested in this way if you are capable of nothing more than rote learning. Critical thought and the ability to apply what you have learned in novel ways and contexts are essential for success, and it is precisely in such areas that so many local students are lacking. This lack is a primary reason for huge failure rates in higher education.

This, however, is not even the primary reason for the difference in standard. The A-Level English syllabus covers whole subject areas which are not touched on anywhere in South African high schools. For example, A-Level English has a module in which students are expected to acquire some basic proficiency in analysing the characteristics of spoken English as opposed to written English, and to display an understanding of the differences between them.

In a basic way topics such as child language acquisition, the use and spread of English as a global language, and socio-linguistic topics such as language change and the influence of class, region and gender on language use, are also studied. This means there is material in your A-Level English studies which could be helpful even to those who go on to study subjects like sociology, linguistics or developmental psychology in their first year at university.

The implications of the differences in level sometimes make themselves felt sharply when students move from one system to the other, especially if they do so at a late stage. The Director of Studies referred to earlier, mentioned a student who moved to her school in Grade 11, and had been accustomed to getting straight A’s in mathematics and the sciences. His mid-year Chemistry AS level exam was his first ever Cambridge paper. He got a D.

In this case, disappointment turned to anger, and the student insisted on a remark, which is rather like the academic equivalent of going to the constitutional court in that there is no higher level of appeal. A D-grade became an E. Such things happen repeatedly. But it is necessary to convince the student concerned this is not an indication of sudden and irreversible stupidity, but a reflection of the vast differences in standards and that with work, patience and determination adjustments can be made.

However, this means that anyone who gets a decent result – even in AS level studies, let alone full A-Levels – has truly accomplished something, and it is possible to do things with such a student that cannot be attempted with the great majority of matriculants, or even some who are well into their first year of university studies.

If a Cambridge student goes on to study at a local university, not only will he/she have been much more adequately prepared for the demands of higher education, but in some instances will already have done work which his/her peers are only encountering for the first time.

What is more, these facts are well-known to senior administrators in universities’ Admissions and Registrars Offices, and go a long way towards explaining the great regard in which Cambridge diplomas are held and the very high profile they have internationally.

The academic advantages outlined have more subtle, less readily quantifiable but equally important human consequences and benefits as well. Let us not forget that for the great majority of students, a university will be their first exposure to an environment in which they are treated like fully mature adults whose actions, such as attending or failing to attend classes, will not be policed.

Furthermore for many of those who go into residences, this will be their first experience of life away from home. While this freedom can be exhilarating, one should not underestimate the stresses and emotional adjustment required. These can surely be dealt with much better if they are not compounded by anxieties that one may not be able to cope with either the material that needs to be mastered or the much greater pace at which it is covered.

Cambridge studies can also be a great source of intellectual stimulation for talented and ambitious students who actively want greater challenges. One further practical observation: if you are contemplating a transition from the local system to Cambridge courses, do not leave it too late.

Regardless of whether you are thinking of enrolling in a school, a tutoring service or both, you must make sure that those whom you choose to deal with have had some meaningful experience with the Cambridge curriculum. It is wise to choose an organisation long-experienced and well-equipped – such as Learning Unlimited.

About the author: Norman Bernard

Norman Bernard

Norman is an English teacher (both language and literature) and editor who has a Masters degree in English as well as a two-year diploma in Book and Magazine Publishing, a TEFL (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) certificate, another certificate relating to the teaching of non-native speakers known as the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) and a certificate in the teaching of Business English.

When dealing with those who are pursuing the Cambridge curriculum, he has taught IGCSE, AS and A Level English language students and the occasional A level literature student. These Cambridge students have in some cases been home-schooled and in others referred to him by institutions such as ISCT in Wynberg.

In his capacity as an EFL (English for Foreign Language) teacher, Norman is also the Exam English Trainer. In his Exam English classes, Norman assists upper intermediate and advanced non-native speakers who wish to study at English language universities to prepare for English proficiency tests such as the IELTS (International English Language Testing System), TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), Pearson Test of Academic English and the Cambridge C1 Advanced (formerly known as the CAE or Cambridge Advanced English).

Norman loves teaching and especially enjoys the way in which private lessons, of individuals and small groups, provide opportunities for detailed, intensive work and giving students individual attention.