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Why study A-Levels?

One of the reasons that drew me to Nova Pioneer five years ago, apart from the desire to be a member of a team of educational pioneers in South Africa, was the opportunity to teach within the Cambridge system. And five years down the line, I do not regret that decision. What an intellectually and personally rewarding journey it has been for me, and will continue to be. The Cambridge curriculum is still quite an unfamiliar system in the South African context. Many prospective parents have heard about it, but are still not fully aware of how it works and the benefits thereof as an educational experience. At parent evenings and open days some of the most commonly asked questions are, ¨What are A levels, and why should my child consider taking them?¨ 


A Levels (Advanced Level) refers to the final two years of the Cambridge curriculum. The two-year course consists of two ´sub-phases´, AS (Advanced Subsidiary) and A2. These two sub-phases combine to equate to a full A Level. At the end of each of these sub-phases students write examinations externally set and marked by Cambridge. In the South African system, the AS Level is considered the equivalent of the South African matric, and students may apply to university locally and exit school after this point if they have achieved the minimum of four AS level subject passes (D symbol and above), including English, combined with one IGCSE pass (C symbol and above). This IGCSE pass should be in their second language. Alright, now that we have dealt with the technicalities, the question arises again. If my child can exit school at the end of their AS year (Grade 12), why should they stay on and achieve a full A level qualification at the end of Grade 13? 


There are a few reasons why we encourage parents to strongly consider full A Levels for their children. The first is that it is a well-respected international qualification and students who wish to study abroad will invariably be at an advantage in terms of university acceptance at all the world´s top tertiary institutions. Top South African universities as well have formalised their acceptance criteria for A Level candidates and these students are highly sought after locally as well. Full A Levels also provides another bite at the cherry for students who may not have achieved the university entry requirements in their AS exams. By improving their results in a 13th year, they almost always end up with a very strong university entrance qualification. 


The A Level qualification is also explicitly designed to prepare students for university study. The heavy emphasis placed on the skills of application, analysis and evaluation of knowledge means students are far better prepared for the academic rigours of university. A 2019 South African study showed that only 22% of South African students managed to complete a three year bachelor degree in the three year time period. Within the South African context there are many reasons for this. However, a key one is that generally, the South African schooling system leaves many students academically ill-prepared for the intellectual rigours of university. At Nova Pioneer part of the way we measure success is defined by our graduate’s ability to complete their university courses in the stipulated time. This is a major factor in why we chose to partner with Cambridge in providing affordable access to a curriculum specifically designed to heighten chances of success at tertiary level. The ability to inculcate critical thinking skills and an advanced level of academic literacy in our graduates will not only stand them in good stead at university, but also in the world of work after university graduation. Another important attribute developed in students within the Cambridge system is the ability to work independently. This is fundamental to success particularly in the A Level phase. Great habits learnt here carry through to university and strengthen the academic ´muscle´ needed to achieve success. The feedback I receive from former Nova Pioneer students is how much further ahead they are at university in their skills, content knowledge and academic maturity than their peers from CAPS or IEB schools. 


And finally, we tend to focus so much on the benefits of Cambridge as a pathway to academic and career success, and neglect the intrinsic benefits thereof, or the opportunity A Levels provides our students to be better, more informed human beings through study for the love of knowledge. The opportunity to focus in depth on three to four disciplines a student is passionate about is an opportunity not afforded to many students in the South African schooling system. The chance to really experience the joy of in depth intellectual fulfilment at an earlier point in their academic career is, I feel, a great privilege. This final reason is an important one, particularly for those students who have not yet decided what they want to study at university. A Levels therefore provides an opportunity for an intellectually stimulating ´gap´ year. 


The Cambridge curriculum has been designed as a thirteen year programme and so our message to prospective parents and students is that, to achieve full benefit from this rigorous and rewarding programme, the option of completing the full A Level qualification should always be one to consider when applying for study at Nova Pioneer. 


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