The 10th anniversary of NCEA reveals there is still division in the ranks, with many elite schools offering alternative options for students.

But is it at the expense of getting the best out of our own system? Education Review takes stock of recent debate.

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) was phased in from 2002 to 2004, leaving School Certificate, Bursary, and the somewhat bizarre Sixth Form Certificate in the past. NCEA was aimed at introducing a standard-based, rather than norm-based, system for assessment, so a student’s success in NCEA is dependent on their certain level of knowledge, rather than in comparison with others sitting the course. NCEA does, however, moderate the criteria so that only a certain number of students get the appropriate grade.

Its introduction sparked such controversy at the time – for example, the credits available through straightforward, non-academic courses were far simpler to obtain than those in the more complex academic subjects. Others have berated the fact that under the NCEA students have more choice of excluding modules they do not want to enter from a subject.

The logistics and associated costs of mailing hundreds of thousands of student exam papers in all directions has prompted NZQA to increase the level of marking completed by schools themselves. However, this adds fuel to fire for those who already find fault with the variation internal assessment brings. As Peter Lyons, teacher at St Peter’s College in Epsom, says in his Herald opinion piece, “We are back to the problem of how to ensure this national qualification is administered with the same validity at Gore High School as it is at Mt Roskill Grammar. A further problem arises if the economics teacher is an easier marker than the geography teacher down the corridor.”

For whatever the grounds for objection, a number of schools have opted for alternative systems, which the Ministry of Education has allowed.

Approximately 10 New Zealand schools offer the International Baccalaureate, in which its Diploma programme is the international equivalent of NCEA, offering six sections (language, second language, individuals and societies, experimental sciences, mathematics and computer science, and the arts) of which three are studied at a higher intensity.

The Cambridge International Examination system, which is offered at 50 New Zealand schools, involves a three-year programme of study, beginning in Year 11. It is largely exam-based, with International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) taken at Year 11 followed by the AS levels, and A levels, taken in Year 13. The exams are sent off to overseas markers and the results are scaled before the student receives their mark.

The most well-known proponent for the Cambridge system – or rather opponent to NCEA – is Auckland Grammar School, which announced that only its ‘weaker’ students would take NCEA, while the majority would pursue the Cambridge system. Former headmaster John Morris criticises NCEA in his Herald editorial for providing a system in which “knowledge has become atomised, schools and students are incentivised to drop ‘hard’ subjects in favour of those where passes are easier.”

Peter Lyons, who has taught both NCEA and Cambridge courses, questions the Cambridge system, particularly how students are not privy to how their results were scaled nor do they receive their exams back. Lyons describes his experience of listening to a visiting Cambridge examiner telling teachers how to teach and assess students as “a lesson in colonial cringe”.

Perhaps all could be forgiven if the system was producing results head and shoulders above NCEA. However, this may not be the case, as suggested by a meeting called by the University of Auckland with schools using the Cambridge exams system over concerns that too many students were unprepared for degree-level study. The university, as reported by the Herald, is understood to have found that younger Year 12 students who gained a place with Cambridge exams have struggled, casting uncertainty on some schools’ assertions that the international system outperforms NCEA.

The university’s meeting highlights one problem with a number of different systems. In establishing entry requirements, tertiary institutions need to make sense of a number of different assessment outcomes, which is no easy task.

One blogger on the subject believes that employers are also grappling with the different systems.“The qualifications are all basically clear enough, but when the quality of these kids varies so widely (in terms of their employability), how are we meant to interpret them?”

Chris Trotter in The Press suggests the opponents of NCEA aren’t interested in a system that sorts young New Zealanders not according to their abilities, but according to the socio-economic status of their parents.

“And how better to signal to your children’s prospective employers that they have been educated at a private school or at one of the elite state secondary schools (like Auckland Grammar) than by substituting the CIE for the NCEA?”

Trotter goes so far as to suggest the proliferation of alternative systems like CIE and IB will create social division in New Zealand’s education system.

“In no time flat, this country’s education system will be driven almost entirely by considerations of class – and in New Zealand, that all-too-often comes down to issues of race and ethnicity,” states Trotter.

There do not appear to be any moves to mandate NCEA among schools, however, and the majority view choice as a positive aspect of our education. Some perceive the competition as a way of driving quality in the NCEA system. John Morris believes his championing of the Cambridge exams system has helped to improve NCEA.

The big advantage of NCEA is that it is ours to improve. As Lyons states, “Because it is ours, we have the means to make it work better.

“Sadly, any robust debate has been stifled as the battle lines between those for and against have hardened. Meaningful dialogue has been lost in the process,” says Lyons.

It seems that the vehement picking of sides has blinded many from working constructively to provide a quality assessment system from which students can benefit.

NZQA has indicated a commitment to bettering NCEA – its year-on-year improvements of the system are testament to that. In its Statement of Intent for 2012/13 to 2014/15, NZQA states that, among other objectives, it is focussing on facilitating an integrated approach to education quality assurance and meeting the challenges created by assuring cross-institution and cross-border qualifications. In achieving these goals, its plea to the sector is emphatic: “NZQA cannot do this alone. It must work with the sector, in particular, with the Ministry of Education, and this will be a key focus in the next 12 months.”


  1. As a teacher-educator and researcher, I have completed one small project, in First Year Physics at the University of Auckland, to compare the achievement levels of students (using a very large number of students from two years’ cohorts) in the two First Year continuing papers. Those who came from NCEA were slightly advantaged and performed marginally better over those who came from Cambridge. I believe that this was because there is a very good balance between qualitative and quantitative aspects in NCEA.

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