Curriculum Choices: The Content
Updated: Jun 2
Getting good grades, balancing extracurriculars with academics, maintaining a social life, and getting enough sleep… high school can be a very stressful time, even before the added pressure of selecting the educational system that will maximise a student’s academic performance. Pearson Edexcel International A Levels, Cambridge A levels (formerly CIE and now CAIE), IB (International Baccalaureate), and the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) are four well-known high school curricula that students will need to choose between. Choosing the curriculum that best suits your learning style and goals will help you gain the grades for admission to top universities, master important content for further study, and set you up for your dream career. Here at CGA, we have created a blog series to help you understand the differences of these four educational systems. In this blog, we will be looking at the specific curriculum offered by each qualification, their requirements, and their strengths and weaknesses. It is important to understand the nuances of each system as this will impact subject selection and your overall educational experience.
Of the systems mentioned above, IB has the strictest set of requirements needed to pass its diploma program and the least amount of flexibility in its selection of subjects. Students must take six subjects over the course of Year 12 and 13 by choosing one subject each in each predefined academic subject group. These subject groups are:
Studies in Language and Literature (choosing one of the types of English class out of 3 possible choices)
Language Acquisition (foreign language)
Individuals and Societies (social sciences e.g. economics, history, philosophy, and geography)
Sciences (e.g. biology, chemistry, physics, computer science)
Mathematics (two types of maths, either “analysis and approaches” or “applications and interpretation”)
The Arts (e.g. dance, music, theatre, film, visual arts)
The only exception is that students can choose to forego taking a subject in The Arts and take another subject in Language Acquisition, Individuals and Societies, or Sciences instead. Out of these 6 subjects, students may not take more than 4 at the Higher Level (HL), and the rest at Standard Level (SL). HL subjects have a greater scope than SL subjects, but are measured by the same grade descriptors. This means that students must demonstrate greater knowledge and engagement at the Higher Level, so will require more teaching hours but will also be a clear stand out when compared to peers who have largely taken SL subjects.
Because IB so strictly prescribes the subject selection that a student may access, this can disadvantage students who have a clear idea of what they want to do at university and beyond and want to concentrate their studies in their area of interest. This is particularly applicable for those interested in science, maths or medicine, as students may only take two sciences as the most. If I had taken IB, I would have never been able to take the three core sciences of physics, biology and chemistry – subjects that have been extremely useful in my studies as a pre-med student at Harvard. This also applies to students wanting to study medicine in New Zealand or abroad, as it can be extremely difficult to keep up in first year Biomedical or Health Science without having taken all three sciences during high school. Moreover, for students who have a clear understanding of where their passions lie, being forced to take subjects in areas of little or no interest to them will waste their time by forcing them to at least sit through those subjects at Standard Level, and potentially lower their overall diploma grade if they lack the motivation to achieve highly in these subjects.
IB also has a number of extra requirements, which include the 4000 word Extended Essay (EE) which requires the student to conduct independent research on a topic of interest. Students must also engage in extracurricular activities through Creativity, Action and Service (CAS) and reflect on the nature of knowledge in a course called Theory of Knowledge (ToK). These requirements are very different to many other curricula, and while some students thrive within this framework, others view it as an extra burden which detracts from the time which they can spend on their passions. Students taking A levels or NCEA can have similar experiences to those gained from the EE, CAS and ToK by engaging in their independent research, meaningful extracurriculars and actively thinking about what they’re learning without having requirements placed upon them.
Furthermore, IB students cannot take more than the allotted 6 subjects or more than 4 subjects at Higher Level, preventing students from harnessing their intellectual curiosity beyond these limitations and proving their full academic potential to universities and employers. CGA can help boost these students’ academic success by enabling them to easily take extra Edexcel International A levels on top of their IB courses in structured online classes. Doing so would raise their academic achievements relative to their peers that only did IB and would help them explore subjects they otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take. Distinguishing yourself in this manner academically is a great way to stand out to admissions officers and show how you have gone above and beyond the many other bright and talented students in the same application pools.
On the other hand, Edexcel/ Cambridge A levels and NCEA all allow students to freely choose the subjects that they would like to study. Students would typically complete 4-5 A-Levels (3 A-Levels are possible as only your top 3 subjects are counted for University entrance in NZ, Australia and the UK, but most schools recommend you to take 4) or 5 NCEA Level 3 subjects. CGA offers a standard selection of Edexcel International A level subjects that you would find at other schools offering Cambridge A levels like English Language, Literature, Maths, Further Maths, Business, Economics, IT, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, History and Psychology. Most schools will offer a similar range of subjects for NCEA Level 3 as well.
In terms of subject difficulty, IB Higher Level subjects are on par with Edexcel International A Levels and Cambridge A levels. These international qualifications tend to craft their subjects with a global focus. Edexcel does the best job of regularly updating its syllabi to reflect new global ideas and technologies. NCEA is more narrowly focused on a New Zealand context. For example, a large part of Level 3 biology is dedicated to NZ biodiversity and geological history. NCEA also tends to be more focused on going deep into a few specific topics or “Standards,” which tends to limit students’ overall understanding of the field they are studying. The decentralized nature of NCEA means that schools and individual teachers can choose the Standards that their students study, meaning schools often game the system and choose easier Standards to boost grades and pass rates that hurt student learning. Edexcel and Cambridge examinations cover a wider array of topics in each subject, more so than IB, often exposing students to the sort of ideas and concepts they will encounter in these subjects at the university level. Edexcel is more grounded in theory compared to Cambridge, especially in the science classes as there are no exams on experimental skills like there are in Cambridge. In my experience, schools tend to do a poor job preparing students for practical exams as they do not have the resources to allow students to practice the necessary experimental skills enough. This means that the practical paper of Cambridge A levels tend to drag down students’ grades in their science classes – a situation you won’t encounter with Edexcel A levels.
No matter whether you’re in your final years of school or are just starting to decide which high school curriculum is best for you, if you’re looking for the support you need to get into a top international university, we can help!
Crimson Global Academy offers both full-time and part-time enrolment options, so whether you want to stay enrolled in your current school and supplement your core studies with additional Pearson Edexcel International A Levels, or you’re looking to join a school where you can take unlimited International A-Levels and can accelerate your learning far beyond your peers, we have an option for you. With dedicated teaching staff averaging 20+ years of teaching experience and a streamlined online learning platform, CGA will give you all the resources you need to (ed)EXCEL in your schooling. Download our prospectus to find out more about what CGA has to offer, and talk to us today about whether CGA could be right for you!
Enjoyed this blog? If you want to learn more about the differences between Pearson Edexcel, Cambridge, IB and NCEA, check out this blog where we discuss the international recognition of each examining board, and this article where we break down how the examinations are structured.
Comment below with what you feel about the current curriculum you’re studying or would like to study, and let us know what you’d like us to talk about next in our blog series!
About the Author:
Ben Zhang is a member of the Crimson Global Academy Marketing team and a third year student at Harvard University studying Molecular and Cellular Biology with Statistics. He studied Cambridge A Levels at Macleans College in Auckland, New Zealand, where he was Dux two years in a row, achieving top in New Zealand marks for AS Level Physics, A Level Chemistry and English Literature and top in the world for A Level Biology, along with the "Best Across Three Cambridge International A Levels in New Zealand" award from the Association of Cambridge Schools in New Zealand (ACSNZ). Ben was a NZQA Premier Scholar in the NZQA Scholarship Examinations two years in a row with Top Scholar awards in Chemistry and Physics. Ben also represented New Zealand at the International Chemistry Olympiad (IChO) and International Biology Olympiad (IBO), winning a Bronze Medal in IChO and a Gold Medal in IBO. You can reach Ben at email@example.com for any questions or feedback about this blog.