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Unpacking The Cambridge Syllabus

All parents want to give their children the best start they can. Unfortunately, there are concerns around the standard of education in South Africa particularly amongst parents considering emigration or who hope to send their children abroad for their tertiary education. Many are asking themselves whether their children will receive a school-leavers’ certificate that will admit them to any university in the world.

While the current NSC examinations (DBE and IEB) are recognised and accepted at many universities abroad, many South African parents are evaluating internationally bench-marked options they can trust. One of those with a proven track record is the curriculum offered by Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE).

Formed by the UK’s University of Cambridge more than 150 years ago, Cambridge Assessment is the world’s largest provider of international education programmes to over 8 million candidates in 160 countries. Its A Level qualifications are recognised and valued by all Ivy League and Ivy Plus universities in the US, all UK universities, as well as those in Australia, Canada, Germany and beyond. The Cambridge AS and A Levels are also accepted at South African universities.

Unpacking The Cambridge Syllabus

The Merits

“The Cambridge International curriculum is flexible, challenging and inspiring, plus all final examinations are externally set and marked by Cambridge International,” says Gareth Tucker, Director of Cambridge at Somerset College, an independent school in Somerset West that is fully accredited with the Cambridge International Programme, is one of its leading institutions in Southern Africa and hosted its international conference in 2019.

“In a nutshell,” Tucker explains, “the ideals espoused by the Cambridge curriculum are very similar to those of the IEB but the former is more flexible in terms of routes to follow to a final qualification, covers the subject matter in more depth and gives a deeper understanding of the topics covered.

“Fewer subjects are studied at A-Level, which means a more concentrated approach. Deep knowledge of focused subjects as well as conceptual understanding is fostered, encouraging students to develop higher-order problem solving and thinking skills.”

He adds that students are encouraged to both do independent research as well as collaborate with their peers; regular practicals in the science subjects are emphasised and students learn to present their arguments openly. “The syllabus and method of teaching provides an excellent grounding and preparation for university study abroad,” says Tucker.

He explains the two-year, staged Cambridge International A Level programme run by Somerset College: “Successful students achieve the Advanced Subsidiary (AS) qualification at the end of the first year and full Advanced Level (A Level) qualifications after the second year. The AS qualification is seen as equivalent to the Grade 12 National Senior Certificate (NSC) achieved via the DBE or IEB route.”

Instead of offering a 13th or post-matric year for A Levels, as some South African schools do, Somerset College runs AS and A Level lessons parallel to their IEB Grades 11 and 12. This means that the school’s Cambridge students complete their A Levels in the same year as their peers in Grade 12.

Woman working on college stairs

Who Will It Suit?

Students who are able to work independently and take responsibility for their own studies will thrive in the Cambridge Programme, says Tucker. “The programme is good for those who relish a challenge and want to be stretched academically and emotionally. They must be prepared to work hard outside of the classroom and to be engaged at all times in the classroom.”

Remember, the UK’s IGCSE, usually written by 16-year-olds, is their school leaving certificate. AS and A Levels are a step up and some students will find them challenging.

Tucker agrees: “The Somerset College Cambridge Programme is an accelerated programme. Students will complete a Grade 12 equivalent in one year, and it does take some time to get used to the teaching and questioning style.”

He explains that final results are based on the final external examinations: “There is no continuous assessment mark, so students who suffer from examination anxiety should think carefully about entering the programme.” Tucker adds that the Cambridge Curriculum may not be ideal for those intending to study in South Africa.

“That said, if there’s a possibility that your child will choose to study abroad or your family is considering emigration, this is an important option to consider. While the DBE and IEB matrics are accepted by many international universities, Cambridge A Levels are accepted far more widely. And they put a student on the same academic level as other international students applying to those universities.”

It is important to note that many international schools in South Africa that offer the Cambridge curriculum end at AS Level, as this is the equivalent of Grade 12 in South Africa. Somerset College is one of a few schools where students complete AS Levels at the same time as their peers in Grade 11, and a full A Level qualification in the same year that their friends write their matric exams.

Tucker also emphasises the importance of ensuring the subjects a student takes will give them access to the universities of their choice, whichever examinations they will be writing. “We offer subjects that are accepted by universities around the world in the fields of Science, Finance and Commerce, Engineering and Computer Science. But, just as they’d do when choosing subjects that will gain them admission to a South African university, a student looking to study abroad should contact the universities they are interested in and find out the actual requirements before making a final decision.

Questions To Ask When Evaluating Cambridge Schools

Proper accreditation of the institution is the most important question, says Tucker. “This will largely determine quality but past results indicate how students of that institution are comparing with others across the world, so ask for those too. As an example, evidence of the strong programme offered at Somerset College is found in past students who have earned the top marks in the world for Maths, IT, physics and English.”

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About Somerset College

Founded in 1997, Somerset College is an independent, co-educational school situated on a beautiful estate in the Winelands of the Western Cape. The College offers schooling from Grade 000 (age 4) to Matric, as well as Cambridge A-levels and IEB. Boarding is available for students in the Senior School.

Somerset College offers a world-class education that best prepares students for tertiary education. They pride themselves on an ethos that allows for each student to embark on their own journey of personal growth and development of individual excellence. They aim to equip their students – through wider innovative educational initiatives, social programmes, entrepreneurial projects and their project-based ESTEAM programme (Entrepreneurship, Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) – to be global citizens who keep up with world events and take their learning with them into the real world.

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