Business & Economy

Wednesday, 20 November 2019 14:19

It must be good because it’s “international”

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Unpacking SA’s flawed understanding of foreign school-leaving qualifications and the outstanding quality of our very own NSC 

Opinion by Anne Oberholzer, CEO of the Independent Examinations Board

Over the past few years, a number of educational institutions operating in South Africa have taken to punting the benefits of an “international” qualification or education juxtaposed against the National Senior Certificate (NSC) and CAPS curriculum.  In doing so the messaging attempts to promote their offering as superior to South Africa’s own curriculum and internationally benchmarked NSC simply because it is ‘international’ (read foreign), without any shred of valid evidence to support such claims.   

The claims play to the flawed perceptions of many South Africans who for some reason believe that if anything is international and not local, it must be superior.  When it comes to education, assessment, teaching and having local quality assurance, this is simply not true.  The claims are spurious at best and exploit the insecurities of parents and learners who simply do not have an understanding of the South African educational order, and the quality and standing of SA’s NSC, not only with our local tertiary institutions, but the vast majority of international institutions that recognise the quality and validity of the NSC. 

There are a number of “international” organisations operating in the sphere of education at all levels in South Africa, including higher education.  They offer international qualifications or courses through an international institution or an international education experience.   Some are reputable organisations providing sound qualifications, while others are very definitely less educationally sound. Many operate in South Africa purely for economic benefit rather than the educational well-being of the South African learner, and in no way contribute to the South African education project in dealing with its numerous challenges.  

With this in mind, there are a number of misperceptions around “international” school leaving qualifications offered in South Africa and the NSC, that warrant unpacking and better understanding: 

#1:  The repeated inference that an ‘international’ curriculum is superior to the local, national curriculum and school-leaving qualification (NSC) must be questioned. 

In 2010, the IEB undertook a benchmarking exercise of the NSC through UK NARIC, the UK equivalent of the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). In that report, available on the IEB website is the following:

“The report is satisfied that the features of the NSC indicate a qualification with an underlying level that is both robust and fit for the purposes of examining senior secondary school levels. In terms of the qualification’s comparability, the report concludes that the National Senior Certificate at Grade 12 is broadly comparable to the GCE AS-level. For those candidates who undertake the IEB Advanced Programme in Mathematics, the report is satisfied that the additional content is more reflective of the requirements of the GCE A level. Furthermore, it is noted that there are considerations to develop an advanced paper for English Home Language; it could be surmised that an advanced paper could further enhance the comparability of the subject to GCE A level standard.”  (Benchmarking Analysis:  The National Senior Certificate (Republic of South Africa, March 2010)

The reality is that the NSC is not only recognised by all South African universities, but also by a substantial number of top universities across the globe. If the NSC is offered in conjunction with the Advanced Programme courses which are assessed by the IEB but open to all Southern African schools (public and independent), it opens doors to even the most prestigious universities across the globe.   Despite claims to the contrary, students offering the NSC together with the Advanced Programme courses have as much chance of getting into top universities in Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, as someone holding an international qualification.  If learners can include a high score from the SATs examinations from the US to their list of achievements, they open every door possible.  Selection then depends on a range of factors outside the academic prowess of the learner or the educational record of the assessment body.  What is important is that learners who write the NSC - whether through the state or the IEB - are recognised because the qualification is internationally recognised.

There are two fundamental points to make.  Firstly, the NSC opens as many doors as any international qualification on the same level. Secondly, the perception that an international qualification makes it ‘easier’ to get into universities - local or international – is flawed.  The basis of university acceptance is on performance and achievement of excellent results in whichever qualification you are offering.   

#2: If “international” is intended to imply that the curriculum is more innovative and attuned to preparing learners for the 4th Industrial revolution, this too needs to be questioned.

A scan of the websites of good schools indicates that they actively teach and promote 21st century skills as well as the use of technology and computers and are pointedly preparing learners for the 4th Industrial revolution.  All curriculum documents be they national or international, including our own South African Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements (CAPS), highlight 21st century skills and fundamental academic skills to be actively developed and emphasised in teaching.  

In fact, every school or assessment body that wishes to be known as a premier educational institution acknowledges, emphasises and accommodates opportunities to expose and develop the fundamental skills that underpin an academic education experience:  understanding how knowledge is created through the research process, reasoning, problem-solving, critically engaging with concepts, alternate opinions and attitudes and of course communication in all its facets. These claims are certainly not unique to “international” organisations.  The critical issue is the extent to which what happens in a school, inside and outside the classroom, supported by the curriculum and assessment, fulfils the commitment made by the school and its associated assessment body.  

#3:  If “international” is intended to mean that the educational experience, teaching, teacher training and resources are better, one might want to also question that.

Every assessment body in the world including state and independent bodies, in addition to providing a curriculum and a set of examinations, provides teacher training and support in its particular philosophy of education as well as teaching and assessment resources.   Some go as far as to prescribe textbooks that, if followed by the teacher, will ensure that every aspect of the examination, including specific expected interpretations, is addressed.   There are arguments both for and against this perspective.

One must remember that the prescription of textbooks is a way of increasing revenue. Schools who commit to an “international” curriculum or assessment are not just encouraged to purchase the relevant textbooks but obliged to buy a copy for each child, with an advertisement that runs something like this: ‘buy this book to make sure you are fully prepared for the examinations’.   

Most ‘for profit’ companies expand their operations to other countries for their own benefit, which is usually financial, and not because they have any drive to solve the educational problems that we face as a country.  As Adam Smith reminds us: It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.


I cite from an article published in the UK Daily Telegraph – “Britain's biggest exam board, is now a £1 billion business which has seen its profits rise more than sixfold over the past seven years, accounts disclose.  The exam board pays its directors almost twice as much as the Prime Minister. Its profits, much of which come from taxpayer-funded exam fees or charges for exam seminars and textbooks, rose by more than ten per cent in a single year.”

There are many more articles published that mention outstanding performances of learners in various international qualifications offered locally.  One article from 2018 in particular mentioned the names of schools from which a number of the prestigious performers came from.  These schools had only commenced with the offering of the international qualification from as recently as 2016. Some of the schools only offer the final school-leaving international qualification and not the primary or junior secondary curricula that precedes this. It will be difficult to explain to any person who works in education that this success has been achieved through following the international qualification’s curriculum for just two years of schooling only!  

The key point is that these learners have been educated using our own local curriculum by teachers educated and working in this country and owe their academic ability and prowess to the roots and foundations established in the South African context – the South African curriculum, the South African trained teachers, the South African schools resourced in many cases by the South African taxpayer.  

Of course, not all schools in South Africa achieve the educational outcomes of some of the schools that we have spoken about and we are aware of the kinds of issues that plague some schools.  In an article published 1 October 2019 , Dr Mamphela Ramphele noted:  The question we should be asking ourselves as a society is why after 25 years of poor quality education outcomes we are still struggling to confront the root causes of this tragedy. What society tolerates 20% absenteeism of teachers on Mondays and Fridays, rising to 33% at every month-end? What society tolerates the culture that has normalised the practice that in schools serving predominantly poor black children only an average 3.5 hours per school day is spent teaching compared to 6.5 hours in the middle and upper-class schools?

It would seem then that as a nation we are not insisting on the teaching profession performing comparably across the board. Without speculating on the causes and reasons for this shirking of responsibility on the part of some teachers and education managers, it is a tremendous shame that our education system is characterised as a failing system when in fact, there is some exceptional teaching and learning happening in our country in schools across the public and independent sector.  

#4:  If “international” is intended to mean that the marking, assessment and quality assurance is done internationally, then this also needs to be questioned.

Some mistakenly claim that marking of international qualifications is done outside the country while the NSC offered by state or the IEB is marked nationally. It begs the question as to why this is important and even warrants mentioning.  Is it because being marked outside the country makes the marking better, more accurate?  A quick review of a few international provider websites indicates that they use onscreen marking which enables them to employ markers from anywhere in the world, including South Africa. So the intended nuance of international marking being better is simply untrue. 

In fact, an assessment body worth its salt addresses a number of fundamental principles in marking: 

  • Markers must be subject matter experts and must be familiar with teaching within the system through which the examination is taken;
  • the marking process must ensure accurate and substantial marking guidelines and must mitigate any issues that could jeopardise the reliability of marking in any way. 

In this way, national marking by local assessment bodies is as good if not better than any international marking. In fact, in South Africa we have the local quality assurance body – Umalusi – which quality assures marking, among a number of other examination processes.  International organisations largely quality assure their own work and it begs the question as to whether their own checks and balances are effective and where the additional layers of accountability and quality assurance lie.   

Schools have a constitutional right to choose an assessment body of their choice along with its associated curriculum that aligns with the values and aspirations of the learners and parents. What is crucial, is that parents and teachers should not be naively led to believe that because something has an “international” label to it, it must be better, can open more doors or a provide a more rewarding learning experience. 

On the contrary, many of the falsehoods and claims of superiority are an insult to the very good national educational institutions with their capable and hardworking teachers that support our Southern African educational project, be it through outreach or twinning programmes with neighbouring township schools, be it through student and teacher exchanges, be it through local academic competitions such as the Maths and Science Olympiads, teacher conferences or simply being together in different fora, sharing our common values and aspirations, developing a common understanding of the difficulties and hardships we each face in our own spheres of operation and together, trying a range of solutions to see what works under which circumstances.   

South Africa is country of contrasts, of diversity, a rich sociological phenomenon that provides an ideal context for valuable learning about the world we live in and the skills we need to become a success.  The dabbling at the fringes with international qualifications shows graphically that we have the raw material with talent that can be shaped by professionals in our country to enable us to become a country to reckon with – in academia, in sport, in the arts, in whatever field you choose to mention.  

If you doubt this for one minute – think why is it that developed countries across the world advertise in South Africa for teachers, nurses, doctors, engineers, electricians, IT professionals, plumbers and technicians?   Why, if they have these seemingly more sophisticated educational systems and qualifications at their disposal, do they recruit here? I would suggest that it is because they recognise the worth of our people. The increasing rate of emigration of South Africans across the cultural spectrum has come about for a number of reasons, not least of which is an appreciation by developed countries of the initiative and ability of skilled and educated South Africans. 

When it comes to good education in both independent and state institutions, do not be fooled.  Local is lekker, and the international tag does not necessarily mean better.  The reality is that worthwhile value-based education is the domain of good teachers who may find one or other curriculum or assessment process helpful in their work.  Outstanding, committed teachers certainly exist in our schools - our independent schools, our state schools, in our rural schools, in our township schools – a quality education is not a necessary outcome of expensive, educational programs but rather, an outcome from a competent committed teaching body, students who are keen to learn and a strong parental support system to encourage and motivate them to do the best they can.

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