Pros and Cons of the Cambridge System

October 14, 2021

The NCAA has over 20,000 international student-athletes enrolled in and competing at eligible schools. South Africa is ranked 11th in the world among countries with the most student-athletes in the NCAA. The NCAA has the highest athletic and academic standards for eligibility across all athletic associations. Therefore, students need to ensure that they are on course to complete all 16 Core Courses by the time they have graduated high school, (Grade 9 - 12). However, there are many different ways of completing your high school courses to satisfy the NCAA's requirements. Let's take a look at the pros and cons of the Cambridge system.

The Cambridge Education System can be a great advantage to some high school athletes

16 Core Courses

The NCAA's  16 Core courses are: (

  • English (4 years) 
  • Foreign Language (4 years) 
  • Mathematics (3 years) 
  • Natural/Physical Science (2 years) 
  • Social Science (2 years) 
  • An additional year of English, Math, Natural/Physical Science 

These 16 Core courses are standard, regardless of the student's high school curriculum. In South Africa, the standard educational system can be broken down into two sections: government education and private education. The government education follows the CAPS curriculum, while the private schools follow the IEB curriculum. The IEB curriculum allows for easier academic pathways in the UK as the IEB is equivalent to the UK AS Levels within the Cambridge International System. However, there are some key differences in how the systems function.

The Cambridge System

Many South African students, however, study through the Cambridge International System directly. This system allows students to graduate earlier than most South African students, as it awards a school leaver's certificate at a younger age. Recent findings from a Florida State University study found that students who completed the Cambridge curriculum perform better at a postsecondary level than students of other systems. This, the study says, is due to the “interdisciplinary nature of the Cambridge curriculum that provides students with the critical thinking and problem-solving skills needed to succeed in college and the workforce”. 

However, many students may still face academic hurdles for NCAA eligibility by not having all of the 16 core courses.  

The broad choice of subjects in the Cambridge is a huge attraction for some students

The Levels

The Cambridge International System has 4 Levels, which are: 

  • Foundation Level (Level 1 = Grade 8, Level 2 = Grade 9) 
  • Subjects completed at level 2 are equivalent to South Africa’s Grade 9 
  • IGCSE’s (Equivalent to South Africa’s Grade 10) 
  • There are over 70 Subjects to choose from and a student must pass 5 to graduate and apply to USA universities and is approved by the NCAA as graduation requirements * 
  • AS Levels (Equivalent to South Africa’s Grade 12) 
  • There are over 50 subjects to choose from and students take 3 or 4 subjects for one year of learning. 
  • A Levels 
  • There are over 50 A-Levels to choose from, but students only need to take 3 subjects.  

Although there are over 170 subjects to choose from within the Cambridge International System for high school graduation, not all are accepted by the NCAA. This is where careful analysis of eligibility needs to be considered. The following subjects have not been accepted as part of the NCAA's Core Courses: 

  • Applications in Mathematics 
  • Current Issues in Sports 
  • General Studies 
  • Human Health and Physiology 
  • ICT (Information and Communication Technology) 
  • Media Studies 
  • Professional Development in the Sports Industry
  • Religious Studies  
  • Research Methods in Sport 
  • Environmental Education and Sustainability for Outdoor and Adventurous Activities 
  • Film Studies 
  • Sports Psychology
However, the Cambridge system's early graduation can pose problems for students who want to study and play sport in the USA.

The Verdict

So what are the pros and cons of the Cambridge system? The system is most beneficial for the student-athletes who need flexibility and who want a variety of subject choices. This curriculum allows students to complete their high school career earlier than most South African students, while still achieving admission eligibility for universities in the UK and South Africa. At the same time, early graduation presents a potential problem for student-athletes who want to study in the USA, as it results in a shortfall of the 16 core courses required by the NCAA. Therefore students may be eligible for UK and SA universities but not for USA universities affiliated with the NCAA. Thus, some A level subjects would need to be studied at extra expense. However, the flexibility afforded by only needing to take three subjects allows student-athletes to spend more time honing their game outside the classroom.

Remember, it’s always the perfect time to begin your journey towards studying at the university of your dreams. Sign up here for a free consultation with one of our recruitment experts. You could join over 300 student-athletes already placed in the USA, competing at the highest level and earning a world-class degree!


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