Choosing the Right Secondary Qualifications

A-Levels or IGCSE? IB or HSC? We take a look at the different types of school-leaving certification offered and how they work.

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Secondary school is that stage of education where kids become teenagers, start running for student council and prepare for their all-important school-leaving examinations.

In most instances, choosing a secondary school curriculum is equivalent to choosing an award to sit for; the exams are developed to test the students’ comprehension of a particular curriculum and whether their academic foundations are solid, so it is natural that the two are intertwined.

Some of these qualifications are awarded based on a single set of scores from one exam series, while others may be graded on a mix of coursework through the year and final exams.

Choosing the right award for your child to graduate with is important because it will determine what and how they learn in secondary school, as well as what universities they can apply to in the future.

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General Certification of Education Advanced Level (A Level)

This secondary school leaving qualification is a main qualification in the United Kingdom and is one of the most popular worldwide for its prestige and flexibility.

Around the age of 16, students choose between three to five A Level subjects to study and take about two years to complete, sitting for end-ofyear examinations (AS and A2 respectively) annually to assess their progress.

Since students can mix and match up to five subjects that they want to study, A Levels are popular among students who have not yet decided on their area of specialisation but want the flexibility of applying to a wide list of universities.

The certification is recognised by many tertiary institutions worldwide and offers are usually made based on a minimum set of final grades. 

Higher School Certificate (HSC)

Based on the New South Wales Australian Curriculum, the HSC is a performance assessment standard that also awards students with an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).

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HSC marks are derived from the scores of students’ school-based assessments and an external final exam at a 50:50 weightage. The HSC marks can then be used to calculate the ATAR, which ranks students relative to their peers; it is used by universities as a guideline in offering course placements to prospective students.

Students usually take HSC-related courses in Years 11 and 12, the last two years of secondary school. Besides English, which is mandatory, students can study a wide range of subjects.

These should be chosen carefully as some university degree courses require students to complete certain HSC subjects or achieve certain scores as entry prerequisites.

Overall, the HSC is considered a fairer assessment as it takes a student’s performance through the year into account, not just during a single exam. 

Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE)

This qualification is for the state of Victoria in Australia and also leads towards achieving an ATAR for tertiary study. The subjects consist of four units (one per semester), but not all units must be completed per subject for the VCE, so students can still change subjects between Years 11 and 12.

Assessments are done internally and externally, with unit completion noted as ‘satisfactory’ (S) or ‘non-satisfactory’ (N). ATAR requires satisfactory completion of three English subject units and 12 units in other subjects. 

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Canadian International Matriculation Programme (CIMP)

The year-long CIMP awards successful graduates with the Ontario Secondary School Diploma, which is recognised by universities internationally.

Some 70 per cent of the grade is based on a student’s average performance level in evaluations throughout the course, while 30 per cent is derived from a final evaluation. Subjects chosen should suit the entry requirements for their tertiary studies.

New students must sit for an English Placement Test to determine whether they need to take an intensive English programme.

An English credit is compulsory for graduation. They will also take an external literacy test with the Ontario Ministry of Education, and must complete 10 hours of community service to graduate.  

International Baccalaureate (IB)

Developed in Switzerland, the IB offers different programmes for all age groups but those aged 16 to 19 years old take the Diploma Programme (IBDP).

Students must study six subjects, each from the following groups: - Language and Literature - Language Acquisition - Individuals and Societies - Sciences - Mathematics - The Arts

Three subjects must be Higher Level (HL) with the other half being Standard Level (SL) subjects – they differ mainly by study time, with HL taking 240 class hours compared to 150 at SL.

Students must also complete three core courses that promote critical and creative thinking, independent research skills and engage with the local community.

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The IBDP is popular for its international recognition as a balanced programme – it is accepted by universities in over 100 countries.

Students will undergo internal assessments and external exams (two to three papers per subject). They will also earn points for work in two of their core components. A minimum 24/45 score is necessary to obtain the diploma.

International General Certification of Secondary Education (IGCSE)

The IGCSE is one of the most popular secondary school certifications in the world and usually precedes the A Levels, IB or other pre-university studies.

The two-year exam-based programme is considered as equivalent to the GCSE in the UK and was originally developed by the University of Cambridge International Examinations.

Most students start the programme around grades 9 and 10, working their way up to the exams, which are graded on an eight-point scale from G up to A*.

“IGCSE encourages learnercentered and enquiry-based approaches to learning. It develops learners’ skills in creative thinking, enquiry and problem solving, giving learners excellent preparation for the next stage in their education,” says Benjamin Marsh, Principal of Excelsior International School.  

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Depending on the school they are studying in, students can take five to 14 IGCSE subjects with a minimum of five passes (C and higher) required to obtain the award.

The core subjects are English Language, Mathematics and Science. The IGCSE has a choice of tiered examinations for students of different ability levels: Core or Extended papers (Cambridge) or Foundation or Higher (Edexcel, which is another examination board).

Advanced Placement (AP)

While not strictly a qualification on their own, AP courses can grant exam credits, advanced placement or both to high scorers at many universities and colleges in the United States and Canada.

This programme was created by the American non-profit College Board and essentially gives students the opportunity to learn at a college introductory level in a high school environment.

There are 38 courses and exams to choose from, but there is no set number to take. Two to four is sufficient for most schools, while Ivy League hopefuls might take three to five in core subjects.

Students can start taking AP classes from junior year through to senior year, and then they sit for the AP exams in May. The exams are scored between one and five, with three and above being a pass grade – most colleges and universities will require at least a three or four for credit.

AP exams can be taken without enrolling for an AP class, but it is not recommended.

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Different secondary school-leaving qualifications are suited to different learning styles, such as exam-based, coursework-based or a mixture of both.

It is also clear that they can heavily influence a student’s future academic path, especially with regards to tertiary education.

Students should carefully consider their preferred learning styles and the sort of university programmes that they are interested in, then make a decision based on that to gain the best advantage from their secondary school education.


Tags: Features, Tertiary
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