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NCEA vs Cambridge: Comparing secondary school qualifications

The two common secondary school qualifications in New Zealand are New Zealand’s National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEA) and Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). But which one is better for your son or daughter?

Many high schools in New Zealand offer senior students the opportunity to complete dual qualifications that are tailored to their academic ability and career prerequisites. At Year 11, they offer NCEA Level 1 and Cambridge’s IGCSE.

Firstly, what is IGCSE? The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) originated in the UK and is an academic qualification that is well recognised around the world in secondary education. When completed outside of the UK, it is known as the International Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE). IGCSE runs parallel to the British GCSE qualification and is controlled by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) – a provider of international qualifications, offering examinations and qualifications to 10,000 schools in more than 160 countries. 

NCEA vs Cambridge – what is the key difference?

While the syllabus content between the two is very similar, the assessment is quite different.

NCEA assesses by modules of work (called standards). For most subjects, approximately 40% of the assessment is done in class (internal standards) and the remainder in an end-of-year examination (external standards). Each standard has a credit value and grades are awarded in four categories – Excellence, Merit, Achieved and Not Achieved.

IGCSE is assessed mostly by an end-of-year examination. Grades are awarded in eight categories from A* to G. The content of these exams are set and marked by Cambridge, although tests and mock exams are taken as a guideline to track progress.

With this style of assessment, Cambridge subjects tend to offer an increased breadth of knowledge, much like the old School Certificate. Students have a better idea of what is going to be asked in the final exam and can prepare for it accordingly. Whereas with NCEA, you never quite know what you are going to be asked.

Workload and difficulty

There are two levels with Cambridge courses – core and advanced. The syllabus is designed to be taught across a year and one term and is assessed by one external exam which does require students to remain focused and knowledgeable about the syllabus for the entire the year.

While Cambridge subjects can be more difficult, students can prepare for the final examinations by looking at mock tests and gaining a better understanding of what questions are going to be asked.


Both qualifications are recognised by universities in New Zealand. There is a common misconception that NCEA is not as well recognised internationally, however we believe this is not the case anymore given the length of time NCEA has been in the secondary school system.

High-achieving students should be encouraged to sit the New Zealand Scholarship examinations in addition to NCEA and CIE. These examinations are well recognised overseas and students are being accepted into international universities on the back of these scholarship qualifications.


Both NCEA and CIE have their own merits and our best advice to students coming into Year 11 is to consider what kind of career or university study they might be looking at and discuss their options with their school.

Ultimately academic ability and university and career outcomes will influence the decision to take one or the other, but if you are still unsure then at most schools, your child can trial the Cambridge syllabus for six weeks, transferring back to NCEA at the end of that time if it is not right for them. It is however difficult to transfer from NCEA to Cambridge.

How do the dual qualifications work at St Paul’s?

Some schools might chose to offer either NCEA Level 1 or IGCSE. St Paul’s however offers both to students in Year 11 in the fields of Chemistry, Physics, Biology, English and Maths. NCEA runs parallel to IGCSE and the material covered between the two is very similar therefore, a student could take a Cambridge subject in Year 11 and pick up an NCEA one the following year.

Nearly half of our Year 11 students will take at least one Cambridge subject (they can take up to four) as well as NCEA subjects. Cambridge subjects do not carry any credits so you can’t cross-credit them to NCEA. At St Paul’s our Cambridge Chemistry, Physics, Biology, English and Maths students have the opportunity to sit many of the NCEA internal standards. Why? Because we like all our Year 11 students to achieve NCEA level 1. This means we operate a dual platform in Year 11, but only in selected subjects.

It is a different story though when we get to Year 12. Based on our research of what works best for our students, all Cambridge Year 12 Chemistry, Physics and Biology students are switched back to NCEA Level 2, but the English and Maths students can continue onto the next level which is AS and following that A level (Year 13).

We continue a Cambridge pathway for English and Maths primarily because of the direct correlation between what is taught in these subjects in Years 12 and 13 and the New Zealand scholarship exams, which we encourage our academically capable students to take. However, for Chemistry, Physics and Biology, the school holds the view that the NCEA curriculum in Years 12 and 13 is better suited to prepare them for scholarships and what they will be doing at university.

At St Paul’s, the Cambridge syllabus is taught in three terms, making the schedule a lot tighter than NCEA and more material to cover off requiring additional homework and a heavier workload for students. There are two levels with Cambridge courses – core and advanced. At St Paul’s we focus on the advanced level, therefore only students with good academic ability are accepted to take Cambridge subjects.

As Cambridge is assessed by one external exam, students do have to remain focused and knowledgeable about the syllabus for the entire the year.  At St Paul’s we believe this suits a lot of students’ learning styles, especially boys, at that age. Boys are often not as good at organising their time and managing deadlines for assignments, as is required for NCEA assessments.