Westlake Boys switches to ‘excellent’ NCEA in move hailed as vote of confidence in criticised qualification.

The principal who introduced Cambridge exams to New Zealand says he believes the qualification still has a place here, as a top school opts out.

Former Auckland Grammar headmaster John Morris said he was surprised at Westlake Boys' High School's decision to solely offer NCEA, as he says the local system is still a "work in progress".

"I'm sure [Westlake's] excellent results in the scholarship exams were down to the increased rigor and content for those students who studied Cambridge," Mr Morris said.
"It will be interesting to see how they get on without it."

Mr Morris, who brought the Cambridge International Examinations to New Zealand after NCEA was introduced in 2001, said it was important to have choice.

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He believed Cambridge was better for boys. There was still a great deal of concern around NCEA, even after 15 years of adjustments, he said. Some of the issues included that students were able to take too many "soft options".

"But the answer isn't getting rid of Cambridge and International Baccalaureate, NCEA needs to improve itself."

"If was still a headmaster I would still be lobbying to get things changed," Mr Morris said.

Westlake Boys, one of the country's top state schools, is ditching the highly renowned Cambridge exams to "fully embrace" the controversial New Zealand NCEA qualification.

The North Shore school says it believes NCEA is an "excellent system" which now has international recognition, meaning an alternative programme is no longer needed.

The move has been hailed as a vote of confidence in the flagship qualification, after a turbulent decade since it was embedded - which has included allegations it allowed students an easy ride.

Westlake's decision comes as the secondary teachers' union calls for Cambridge - and a second overseas-based programme, the International Baccalaureate - to be removed from state schools in order to further strengthen NCEA.

Westlake principal David Ferguson said the school made the decision after a full curriculum review, and at the end of a year in which it achieved more NCEA Scholarships than any other school, with two students in the top three in the country.

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Changes to NCEA, including subject endorsements, had improved the qualification well beyond what it was at first introduction, he said.

"The time is now right for us to embrace our country's national qualification fully, ensuring that our young men experience a holistic education shaped by the unique identity of New Zealand," he wrote to parents in explaining the choice. "We are very excited by this development."

Mr Ferguson said the decision was something of a gamble, but as enrolments for next year were up 10 per cent, it may have paid off.

"It shows us people are choosing the school rather than the pathway, and that the community have faith in our direction."

There was a point where it seemed that the students that did Cambridge were the smarter kids and I thought I should try it because it was more widely recognised. But it didn't have as wide a range of subjects. Doing art at NCEA level is more creative. There is a lot of work to do, but I think that's more about the subjects I have chosen - art has a high workload. I prefer internal assessment, it gives me an opportunity to see how well I'm doing throughout the year.

Cambridge, which the top 30 per cent of students had entered previously, would not cease immediately, but would be phased out over the next few years. In its place, the school was hoping to introduce accelerated classes in more subjects above those already offered in English, maths and science.

There are about 70 schools in the country offering Cambridge. Yesterday, some principals said they would not be following suit.

Roger Moses, of Wellington College, said the school had offered Cambridge in maths for about eight years, to provide an extra challenge for high-performing students.

He said that was partly because if students sat New Zealand Scholarship early, at Year 12, they weren't entitled to the monetary prize, which was "absurd".

Avondale College's Brent Lewis said their system was based on student choice. "If students want the competitive environment and greater rigour and a less minced form of assessment, then they will choose Cambridge.

"NCEA is good for those who want more support in teaching and learning, and more flexibility," he said.

Avondale's top scholar received a scholarship to Cambridge University last year, which Mr Lewis said would not have happened if he had taken NCEA.

When I was choosing, the perception was that if you were in the A-stream you just did Cambridge. It never really crossed my mind to do NCEA. The workload is what you make of it, you don't have internals so there are some students who possibly coast to the end of the year but I'd like to think I keep up throughout the year. People say you need Cambridge to go overseas but we visited schools all over the USA and in the UK and they were happy to convert NCEA results.

Head of the PPTA, Angela Roberts, said it wanted Cambridge gone as it was undermining NCEA, and was calling for a ban.

"The marketing exercise implies that Cambridge is 'better' than NCEA, and it's not," she said.

The union said part of the issue with NCEA was outside influences on the qualification - such as the Government's 85 per cent pass target, or the universities' interpretations of what "success" looked like - which were hampering NCEA's ability to be flexible.

Education Minister Hekia Parata said schools had the choice of which qualification they offered.

"NCEA is about equipping young people for lifelong learning and has the flexibility to cater for every student and for all career pathways," she said.

"It's great that Westlake Boys High School recognises the value of NCEA and has now committed to fully embracing it."

NCEA
• Introduced 2002.

• Subjects are broken down into a number of standards to assess specific skills.

• Is marked in achieved, merit and excellence.

• Has both internal and external standards.

• Three levels, generally sat at Year 11, 12 and 13.

• Recognised internationally.

• High achievement is recognised with endorsements.

• Students can go on to sit scholarship exams.

Cambridge
• Provided by Cambridge International Examinations, part of the University of Cambridge in Britain.

• Offers GCSE and International A and AS levels - based on the English school qualification system.

• Exams are at the end of the year, although some coursework is assessed internally.

• CIE are sat by about two million students in almost 170 countries.

• Offered by 60-plus schools in New Zealand.

• Recognised internationally.