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The Cambridge curriculum | Are full A-levels a requirement?

Known for their challenge, quality curriculum and focus on university preparation, A Levels give your child an advantage. But are they necessary in South Africa?
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As one of the most popular pre-university programmes, A Levels are designed to prepare learners for the demands of the university environment. 

A Levels are known for in-depth dives into specialised course material, with learners typically focusing on three to four subjects over two years of study. Most importantly though, A Levels push learners past rote learning and call for deeper understanding, critical thinking and research and analysis. 

This lays a solid foundation for university education. So it’s no wonder that A Levels are commonly referred to as the passport to success. 

This reputation is supported by research findings too. To test the impact of their learning, Cambridge International is undertaking a long-term study in the US. The study aims to find out how well Cambridge students perform at the tertiary level. 

The study shows that learners with Cambridge qualifications enrol more quickly than the average US student and are more likely to graduate (and on time, too). 

It’s compelling evidence of the advantages of the Cambridge model. But the question remains, are full A Levels really a requirement?  

The short answer is: No. While beneficial, full A Levels are not a requirement in South Africa. AS Levels are a school-leaving qualification in South Africa, and all your child requires to apply for tertiary studies. 

We’ll take a look at both AS and A Levels, how they fit into the Cambridge Pathway and how your child can meet matric exemption requirements with either qualification. 

The Cambridge Pathway

The Cambridge Pathway is the educational route that Cambridge International curriculum learners can take throughout their school journey: from ages 5 to 19. 

Starting at Cambridge Primary, and ending at Cambridge Advanced, the pathway ends with A Levels, which is the highest possible qualification available. 

But your child has options along the pathway. One of these is the decision between completing their full A Levels or wrapping up their secondary schooling with AS Levels. 

Unlike numerous international universities, South African tertiary institutions accept AS Levels as a valid school-leaving qualification, provided your child meets the subject requirements necessary for a matric exemption certificate. 

Unlike A Levels, which involve two full years of study, AS Levels, at UCT Online High School,  take 18 months to complete. Both are recognised by all 26 public institutions in South Africa. They’re valued for their holistic approach to learning, emphasis on self-directed study, and focus on research and critical thinking. 

To apply for tertiary studies in South Africa, your child will need to: 

  1. apply for a South African matric exemption certificate with their AS or A Level results
  2. meet the minimum entrance requirements for each institution they apply for, including specific subject criteria for individual programmes
  3. write the National Benchmark Tests (NBTs), in most instances
  4. be proficient in English, which is the primary language of instruction in the country. 

Matric exemption requirements

Unlike CAPS students, who are automatically issued a National Senior Certificate (NSC) after successfully meeting the requirements, Cambridge International students and other non-NSC learners must apply for their matric exemption certificate at the end of secondary studies. 

Given that South Africa’s matric exemption includes certain subject requirements, this is important to know going in. 

Matric exemption is granted by Universities South Africa (USAf). This organisation represents South Africa’s universities. It vets, benchmarks and endorses high school qualifications. 

Since AS Levels are equivalent to Grade 12, your child is able to opt for this qualification instead of full A Levels, and then submit for their matric exemption once they’ve passed. 

The other option available to them is the Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) Diploma, which also qualifies them for a matric exemption certificate. Do keep in mind however that this diploma is not currently offered by UCT Online High School.

A Level

There are a number of ways to structure the A Level qualification. They’ll need to achieve between an A* and an E for two subjects at the A Level, as well as an A* to a C at the IGCSE Level. To qualify for a South African matric exemption, they will need to study English First Language at the A Level, and Afrikaans Second Language at the IGCSE level.

AS Level

To complete their AS Levels, your child must study four subjects. They’ll need to achieve a grade between an A and a D for all of these. One of these AS subjects has to be English First Language, according to South Africa’s rules for matric exemption. They will also need to pass one IGCSE subject with a grade of A* to C. South Africa calls for a second language to qualify for matric exemption. For UCT Online High School learners, this means they will need to complete IGCSE Afrikaans Second Language.

For a deeper look into the subject combinations available for AS and A Levels, read out this guide by Cambridge International. For the subject combinations available at UCT Online High School, check our Cambridge International academic handbook

Specific degrees and institutions will set their own subject requirements as well. So ensure you check these before making subject choices for IGCSE and AS and A Levels.

The two-sitting rule 

If your child doesn’t opt to complete their A Levels, they will need to meet the requirements of the two-sitting rule. This rule is in place to ensure they are able to keep pace with the academic requirements of tertiary education. 

The two-sitting rule places a time limit on when your child can sit their IGCSE and AS exams. This ensures that they are not spreading their studies out over an undue period of time. 

The rule requires that your child passes their IGCSE or AS Level subjects within two sittings each. Exams written within 12 months are considered to be a single sitting. 

However, for some subjects, exams only take place once per year, in June or November. In that case, two exams will make up a single sitting. 

AS or A Levels: The choice is yours

Now that you’ve learned all about the benefits of AS and A Levels, and the requirements under South Africa’s education system, you’re ready to make the choice that’s best for your child, and your family. 

If you feel your child is ready for the in-depth understanding, critical thinking focus and practice of self-directed learning included in AS and A Levels, reach out to a member of our Admissions Team and kickstart the admissions process.

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