Almost 30 New Zealand students sitting Cambridge International Exams have topped an international results table.

The students, from among about 45 schools that offer the exam as an alternative to NCEA, will be recognised at a "Brilliance in New Zealand" prize-giving night on Friday.

Macleans College at Bucklands Beach, Manukau City, was one of the high achievers with three of the five world top places at A-level (equivalent to NCEA level 3).

Tom Wang was first in physics and further mathematics and Lara Markstein topped history.

Tom Eason, CIE regional development director, said the results were more than just awards. "They are the start of a bright future."

Nine Kiwis topped the world at IGCSE level (equivalent to NCEA level 1) and 13 at AS level (NCEA 2).

Schools which offer Cambridge are mainly traditional ones which have largely turned their backs on the NCEA.

The Cambridge system, developed in Britain, is knowledge-based rather than standards-based.

Other top-performing schools include ACG Senior College, Auckland Grammar, King's College and Westlake Boys.

Lara Markstein said she was surprised with her result but ecstatic.

"No matter how much work you do there are so many candidates of such a high calibre out there."

She topped New Zealand for Art History as well and although she is taking a year out to travel and work before going to university she thinks her marks may mean she pursues those subjects.

Lara said she had done NCEA before in Year 10 but found the Cambridge exams more rigorous and challenging and believed there were issues which still needed to be sorted out with NCEA.

"I wanted something that was tried, tested and true."

How impressive the results are is hard to quantify.

The British centre that administers the exams could not provide the Herald with the number of students sitting individual exams and where they were from.

Critics claim the Cambridge exams are "Third World" and studied in developing countries.

Schools in Bangladesh, Botswana, Gambia, Malawi, Sierra Leone and Swaziland offer Cambridge.

But so do schools in Britain, many European countries, the United States, Canada and Australia.

About 360,000 students worldwide sat Cambridge last year.

But New Zealand students will have been competing against only those who sat the November sessions - precluding most Northern Hemisphere countries.