NCEA, CIE or International Baccalaureate?


If I have a choice to pick any of the above curriculum, which would be the best? What are the upsides and downsides of each?

  • How is each curriculum dissimilar to the next?
  • What’s the general structure like?
  • How does grading work?
  • Toughest to least toughest?
  • Subject choices?
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I love this question, because I think people often think about which is going to make them look “smarter,” as opposed to actually which curriculum is the best fit for them. I’ll try to be pragmatic, but I will say from the outset that I completed the NCEA curriculum in 2012 and I feel there were many faults with it, however, it has been changed since I finished and I’d like to hear from people who have taken it since the change. I have friends who took IB and Cambridge and now talk to many students who take one of the three or sometimes a mix of two (CIE and NCEA at schools that offer both) so I know quite a bit about how they operate.

IB is very well rounded. Therefore, if you are a student who is interested in or excels in quite a few disciplines, then IB is for you. It has a mixture of internals and externals, and also added academic activities like the EE, TOK, and CAS. So you need to be able to manage your time REALLY WELL to keep your grades up consistently with all the different tests and assessments going on. It is very academically rigorous, and is well regarded around the world (if you want to study overseas). Like any curriculum, there are “hard” subjects and “easier” subjects, but because of the range of subjects you take you are consistently being challenged in such a range of disciplines. Each subject is marked out of 7, so you can quantitatively compare yourself to your classmates.

CIE is focused on depth on knowledge. You only need 3 subjects (A-levels) to complete the curriculum. New Zealand often pressures students to take more subjects, but if you are looking for admission to NZ, AUS or UK unis, their offers will be based on your best 3 A-levels. CIE is hard. The depth of knowledge required for exams answers is a lot. However, since there are no assessments throughout the year, you spend 10 months preparing to answer questions in a series of exams (usually two or three) of about 3 hours in total for each subject. So, if you have very poor time management, CIE is for you, because you can slack off throughout the whole year, and then cram in the couple of weeks before an exam and come out with an A*. You can take any subjects you like in CIE (unlike IB where you have to take a subjects from certain disciplines) but I’ve found that there isn’t a big focus on arts education in CIE, but a large focus on the sciences. You’re graded with a number and letter, so a 45/50 becomes a 90% becomes an A*, which means you can compare your grades to your peers, and also know how much more work is needed for a higher grade (eg. you needed 4 more marks in a test).

NCEA is similar to CIE in that it has open subject selection, and similar to IB in that it has assessments throughout the year. However, I believe NCEA’s marking schedule is a major flaw, as it was designed to help underachievers pass, and not overachievers excel comparatively to their classmates. If you and a friend both receive a Merit, how do you know who wrote a better paper, and how close each of you were to an Excellence? They have changed the system so you can now receive a high Merit or a low Merit, but I still think this grouped marking system is flawed. It becomes very easy to manipulate the system and know what the marking guide is looking for, as opposed to making students think about how to best answer questions, because they simply have to meet a threshold to get a mark. However, NCEA does have strengths too. It has a good arts curriculum, a good vocational curriculum, and more students are “passing” numeracy and literacy requirements every year. NCEA is not difficult, and I didn’t do as much study compared to my friends who took CIE and IB but still came out with good results.

I was also a university faculty tutor for a year and a half, and marked over 150 business report assignments. I must say that some students’ writing abilities were appalling, with poor sentence structure, poor spelling, and poor study and research habits when they would talk about concepts incorrectly or in totally the wrong context, clearly not understanding the content they’re learning. That’s why I put passing in quotations earlier. I worry that since NCEA is teaching to a matrix, students are learning the system, and not actually learning. I think the scholarship exams are great, and there should be more of an emphasis on these in schools (as many students self study them).

PHEW! Lots of info. So, each curriculum has its pros and cons. Therefore, the best curriculum for you depends on what you hope to achieve during high school and at university (if you decide to go).

If you want to go to a NZ uni or trade course - take NCEA. It won’t require a lot of effort, so more time for sports and leadership activities. You can achieve university entrance fairly easily in subjects you like. I would recommend taking a range of subjects to keep your skills up in all areas of academia, but if you don’t want to, you don’t have to!

If you want to be best prepared for NZ uni - take IB. The range of skills you learn from taking a range of subjects, and the study patterns you develop best prepare you for university.

If you want to study at a top Australian university - take IB. The top unis require a high ATAR, and IB translates well into a good ATAR score. Aus unis require very high A-level (often AAA) or high NCEA marks (70 excellence credits) which depending on courses taken (and the nature of marking) can be hard to achieve.

If you want to study in the UK - take CIE. It is their national curriculum, and trains you for the depth of study required at UK unis. If you know you love history, then you can take A-levels in History, Classics, and Latin - perfect! No fussing around with the sciences or fine arts. NCEA is not well accepted in the UK (though people will debate me on this!). IB is also accepted, but its range doesn’t translate well to the depth the UK looks for.

If you want to study in the US - take IB. It is an international curriculum, so it is easy for them to compare your scores to other students. It teaches you strong writing skills, critical for US admissions and the liberal arts pedagogy. It produces students who have developed good study patterns and good reading and analytical skills as well, particularly important for the top US colleges. It also allows you to explore a range of subjects, which is also what you’ll do in your first two years of uni.

If you don’t know what subjects you like - take IB. Its structure reduces decision fatigue and regret, and you learn lots of different subject areas.

If you know what you like - take CIE or NCEA. You can select the subjects you like, so don’t have to take ones you don’t want to.

If you are very academic - take CIE or IB. Both require a lot of study even for mediocre marks, but for the top marks they will present some challenging concepts.

If you aren’t good at exams - take IB or NCEA. You can attain a lot of internal marks taking pressure off end of year exams.

If you spend a lot of time on sports or community work - take NCEA or CIE. NCEA doesn’t require too much work to pass and gain university entrance, and is quite adaptable for when you take internals if you require (like you play high performance sport and travel often). You can cram for CIE exams, meaning if you miss lots of school you can just do the work closer to exams.

If you don’t really like school - take NCEA. There are great vocational pathways (like mechanics and childcare) if you don’t like spending hours of time in the books, and subjects are also quite easy to pass if you due pursue the more traditional school subjects.

However, I would love to be challenged by others who have had experiences with these curriculums!


Great question! But you’ve missed one curriculum out! I would suggest that you should consider NZQA Scholarship as a supplementary curriculum to whichever of the three primary curriculums you choose.

NZQA Scholarship offers a fantastic opportunity for NZ high school students to demonstrate their expertise in a particular subject, regardless of which high school curriculum they are doing. Scholarship is an academically challenging curricula that students take, generally in Year 12 or Year 13 in addition to their normal course work. The NZQA Scholarship awards offer monetary reward for outstanding performance in one or more subject areas - between $500 and $30,000 depending on how well you do.

Grading is different to the other curricula because students are ranked against the relative performance of their peers on a national scale. This means that sitting NZQA Scholarship exams is not only a great way to extend yourself academically- achieving these awards also comes with the prestige of having succeeded within such a competitive academic framework, something which can be essential when applying to overseas universities, internships and jobs in the future.

I would highly recommend looking into some NZQA Scholarship subjects regardless of which curricula you decide on.