Cambridge International Examinations: Not Pakistani, so it must be good

Published: May 10, 2013

I began to notice, with increasing clarity, how much emphasis our teachers put upon the internalisation of what I call the CIE ‘exam formula’.PHOTO: REUTERS

I remember when my anxiety towards an impending CIE A level examination superseded the boundaries of personal interest and assumed a political nature. Disappointed with the B in my Chemistry mock exam, I turned to my teacher for further evaluation.

Instead of relieving me of my worries, the response I received gave way to a wide array of concerns.

“Come on, how many past papers did you guys really do? You can’t expect an A without having done enough past papers!”

I began to notice, with increasing clarity, how much emphasis our teachers put upon the internalisation of what I call the CIE ‘exam formula’.

In Pakistan , where people are quick to condemn the local education system for its corrupt policies and inefficiency, the implications of a CIE ‘exam formula’ are heavy.

As a 12th grader currently doing my AS level, I feel that the educational arena and its opportunities are perceived in a very dichotomous manner.

Firstly, people engage in the belief that the local examination boards are excessively inefficient. In true reductionist fashion, they cite instances of cheating in examination halls, laughingly point out the typos in a Karachi Board textbook, and express their dismay at the concept of rote learning that local boards are supposedly the sole perpetrator of.

Such notions, in turn, facilitate the glorification and uncritical acceptance of the international examination boards available in Pakistan, of which the most widely-endorsed one is Cambridge International Examinations.

When viewed within the context of South Asia’s colonial history with Britain, such endorsement poses a problematic picture.

I have had the good fortune of taking  high school exams through both, SSC and CIE. My experience with the two boards and its candidates has made me come to understand the assumptions made by the two institutions about and towards each other and I have seen how they play into the post-colonial situation of Pakistan.

O/A level candidates have a very poor impression of SSC/HSSC education. They believe it to be superfluous – somehow sub-par and not wholesome enough.

On the other hand, CIE qualifications always merit instant validation from society and assert one’s social status. When discussing the shortcomings of the Matriculation system, there is always a sense of gratification shown by O level students.

“Thank God I’m doing O levels! I’d never have been able to ratta-fy (rote learn) so much text!”

Comments like this always make me sceptical because such mentality contributes dangerously to the class divide that exists in educational sectors.

Where does this childish superiority complex end and the hegemonic exploitation of the lower social classes at the hands of the British-affiliated education sector begin?

Time and again, especially with the examination date so close, my teachers have emphasised the importance of doing past papers, and frequently impart lessons from ‘What CIE Expects from a Candidate.’

To do well in CIE requires monetary resources. Thus, for the upper classes, education through an international education board like CIE is an easy opportunity. The same cannot be said for the lower social classes. They cannot afford the same opportunities, and are yet evaluated on the same standard that society expects of education from an international exam board.

Many would argue that the CIE curriculum is designed specifically in such a way that it keeps in regard the socio-political situation of the countries that it includes. Even so, the insidious effects of a CIE education as a lived experience are immense.

The social divide that I mentioned before is one. Also, through the endorsement of particular texts, CIE has the power to perpetuate Eurocentric colonial images in Pakistan’s society simply by training students to inculcate the CIE “formula” based on which they’ll be graded in their exams. This is not to say that local curriculum and educational boards prescribe the most objective and undistorted texts either, but Pakistan’s geopolitical history with Britain in particular lends problematic undertones to the issue where a Western education board like CIE is concerned.

Such a Eurocentric understanding of Pakistan’s issues, without proper contextual references, has the potential to turn academia into a dangerous space for unsuspecting Pakistani students. So much so that through participation in such an education system, the very purpose of education – empowerment and progress – might even be negated.

Follow Hooria on Twitter @hooriaimran


Hooria Imran

A 17-year-old skeptic who is currently learning the art of rage.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ace

    Britain phased out the GCE back in 1988 and they have moved on but 25 years on pakistani students are still taking the CIE.

    I would say the American pattern of education is better, cause they tend to create a well rounded student.Recommend

  • HSSC student

    ‘We are the geniuses of the world’ that’s the view of CIE candidates. #Nooffense #truestoryRecommend

  • S

    As an Indian I share your concerns but was bowled over by the style of the essay itself. Excellent language skills from a 12th grader.Recommend

  • Zahid Jamil

    Reads less like journalism and more like a smear piece. Recommend

  • Rafidi

    Then please do us all a favour and not undertake the Cambridge exams. The reason these exams are better regarded is because there is a guarantee of a base level of ability and knowledge. That baseline cannot be guaranteed with the local education boards. I for one thank God every day for the fact that my Dad decided to push me that much harder to do my O and A levels. It has given me a vital edge during my university education and set a good base for my career.Recommend

  • nadeem khan

    Wonderful effort to evaluate CIE and HSS/HSC. I admire the length such a young girl like you spent on such a painful topic, i must say. It has created a class, no doubt, based on money and access to higher and international education. I am a teacher in an American curriculum international school in Saudi Arabia and feel very sorry that best educational facilities are available to some of the very not-eligible students. CIE in colonial countries like Pakistan is also providing such opportunities to many bright students but most of them are not so different from students that I face here.I agree with you that it is one of the big reason of class divide starting from early ages and such a pity.Recommend

  • Red

    I didn’t get your argument. How are Cambridge exams insidious as a lived experience? I’ve read your blog three times. Is it just because of history? You wouldn’t study in a quality education then just because it was based in the country that belonged to a former colonial power? “Eurocentric colonial images in Pakistan’s society”? I’m trying but you don’t make much sense. Everything apart from Islamic Studies and Pakistan Studies is completely objective. These two subjects are written from Pakistan’s perspective. Eve the books are by Pakistanis.

    CIE exams are expensive, I’ll give you that. But your argument that “To do well in CIE requires monetary resources” does not hold water. I self-taught myself Accounting. As in, I just bought the book, studied it entirely at home, it took me no more than a month, and gave the exam without any external help. English is a damn breeze. You (using “you” generally, I know you are doing your A levels) don’t even have to study it if you like reading. My Urdu is regrettably weak since I am not an avid reader of Urdu novels but I would say the same for that. If, unlike me, you do read a lot of Urdu, you’d sail through. I incidentally gave Urdu privately, without tuitions, as well and I am terrible at Urdu so I’m not just referencing subjects I am good at to show how they can be studied without any aids. For instance, I have no idea what kind of a student would need to be taught Pakistan Studies or Islamic Studies. There is nothing to understand there. You just have to memorize it. Quite similar to the Pakistani board I’d say except you have to keep your answers very short and to the point. (By the way, this is where past papers are helpful. Anyone who didn’t do the past papers would write pages and pages and not finish the paper on time despite knowing the answer to all questions.) These are also subjects I gave earlier than the school on my own. Maths, again, can be self-taught. I finished it before the school was done with the syllabus. Anyone who wants to learn along with the school system can but a year’s worth of math education can easily be finished over two months in the summer. The only subjects anyone might need help in (and by help, I don’t mean tuitions, I mean school education) are the Sciences and Additional Maths (I didn’t do Computer Science so I can’t answer for that). A-levels is tougher, you will likely need to be in school, but that is it. If your teachers arent good, like mine did, if they insist you come to tuitions, you’ll end up studying on your own again which really isn’t that impossible. Please don’t complicate a simple education. All you need is hard work, not money to do well.

    CIE, by the way, is disadvantageous for people who want to do medical or enter into other government supported universities and careers, so much so that is penalized. There is no question whatsoever that Pakistan favors its own education system. There is no place you can get with O and A Levels that you can’t also get under the Matric/FSc. system. The reverse is sometimes not true. Unless you want to go to Britain, O and A Levels give you no advantage. You have to give SATs and GREs for the States. Universities in other countries accept either system or may ask for SATs and GREs as well. Also, before you start on how only rich kids can go abroad, I must remind you that hard work can get you scholarships practically anywhere in the world. Even in A-levels actually. I remember full scholarships being offered for A-level students. Scholarships are offered from O-levels all the way up to PhD. If you’re not a hard worker, well, you get what you earn. There is nothing unfair in that.

    The only advantage CIE can give you is a better education in terms of critical thinking skills. Some questions, particularly in maths and sciences, cannot be passed through rote learning. You have to use your brain cells. You have to apply the concepts you’ve learnt rather than regurgitating the theory on paper. If you prefer the Metric and Fsc system purely on academic merit, that is something we can agree to disagree on. Recommend

  • Gary

    “When viewed within the context of South Asia’s colonial history…”

    Looks like lot’s of pakistanis are south asian experts these days…

    Of late memorization has come to mean insult/lack to critical thinking, but it may be a necessary step in acquiring long-term learning. Recent research shows memorization a necessary precondition to understanding.
    Empirical data shows memorizing scales/verse/etc etc, so that we can play, recall or recite automatically gives us the mental equipment to perform more advanced functions and display greater creativity.Recommend

  • antony

    A comment on the expression “hegemonic exploitation ” . No academic report in south asia and particularly in India use the word ” hegemony” in education scenario. In pakistan there is a social fear of hegemony of India and innate resistance to overpower it after all “we ruled then for 1000 years ” dialog goes in every pakistani mind irrespective of civilians(illiterate or elite).So everything termed as a higher standard than pakistani system is felt as hegemony and in this case it is felt from Cambridge International examination.Recommend

  • UMSyed

    In agreement with the writer.Recommend

  • http://www, Mohammad A Bajwa

    We should have one system based on O/A level.Recommend

  • The Khan

    When you apply to foreign universities, you will thank God that you took O and A levels.
    Because its a examination system recognized worldwide with clear academic requirements etcRecommend

  • Salman

    I disagree with you to an extend. Why do we go for CIE exams instead of the local board? My cousin, who worked so hard for his HSSC exams got such horrifying result that he attempted sucide, thank Allah he was saved. No one see’s that as unfair treatment with those who work hard. CIE, on the other hand gives you chance to prove yourself without any discrimination. And tell you what, we should be thank ful that we’re studying in such a system. Some kids don’t even get to study in the local one.

    By the way, I’ve a business exam today, please pray!Recommend

  • clarus

    now at workplace i see a stark difference between people with cie and local board background though both maybe holding masters from the same university but within first conversation you can have an idea about their schooling,Recommend

  • Teen Dabay Wala

    “I have had the good fortune of taking high school exams through both, SSC and CIE.”.. ohh pure soul.. my sympathies r with you :-( and why would someone take this step and ruin/delay his/her university degreeRecommend

  • AS

    CIE is the better system!Recommend

  • Gandhi Jinnah

    at least some one (a student) has spoken what many teachers and teacher educators (who do not teach in the so called elite or not so elite) teaching in school stating that they teach Cambridge International Examination syllabus/curriculum.

    CIE is testing students skill to memorise texts as the local examinations. The only differences are the examination fee and the examination halls. A candidate pays about 100K to the examination body, that is, CIE while the candidates taking the local examination hardly pays few thousands rupees. The examination halls/rooms is the other different. The candidates taking the CIE examination sits in examination halls with all facilities, such as electricity, drinking water, comfortable seating arrangement and chair and desks while the the candidates taking the local examination sit in rooms/halls which are over crowded, not enough chairs/benches and desks for students, have power failures during examination, heat and humidity, no drinking water at all.Recommend

  • Faizan

    While I agree with your notion, there are a few flaws with what you are talking about. Ask a maths student from A levels to solve an Intermediate Maths paper and ask an Inter student to solve an A levels maths paper. The thing is, both will find it difficult to solve the other’s paper but sometimes, you need concepts to solve a few thing and CIE teaches us that. I’ve seen a few Inter papers, they basically ask you to solve a question using a theorum, in CIE, you’re not asked to do so, you have to recall from memory and concepts what you are going to apply and how you’re going to apply it(I haven’t actually read through ALL of their papers, I just glanced through a few and found this. This may or may not be true). While I must add that the Inter syllabus is really hard, and that their Chemistry syllabus does contain concepts which are beyond us, but that isn’t the point here. The CIE syllabus used to be tougher than what it is right now, try solving a question from as early as the 90s or early 2000s to understand this. I know people who aced Inter with ease but when I asked them to solve a question I couldn’t understand, they were unable to do so because of the lack of concepts. You say that Rote isn’t a reason to hate it, but it is. The system of local education in its current form has flaws, deep flaws and rote is one of them. Why do they rote? Because that is how the questions are asked, and that is how they are to be answered. On another note, I went through a biology paper a Matric student was giving. They were asked to give a Quranic verse which tells them that this holds true. While the Quran has deep scientific knowledge in it, you cannot put it in everywhere just for the heck of it.
    Then you have the syllabi. How many people from Inter know about the ’65 war, that we didn’t win or lose but signed a ceasefire. People counter-argument that we were winning it but then again, we had occupied huge areas of desert from them and were going low on arms(remember the arms embargo?) while they occupied a few 100 kilometres of fertile land from Pakistan. That isn’t the point here but this is one of those things which isn’t taught to anyone. I’ve already talked about maths above, the Inter chemistry syllabus is hard but the amount of rote in it is huge. Plus, the books are outdated. Numerous theories have come out since they were last revised but students are still learning theories which aren’t theories anymore because either they were proved wrong or they’ve been proved to be correct. This is not to say that Inter students are dumb or that they don’t know anything, those students who prefer understand rather than rote go on to be very successful in life, but there aren’t many like them out there, now are there? Here’s another example I just remembered: 3 years ago my cousin was giving her 9th exams and she told me that all she has to do in English is to read through the 5 year old papers, because they pick out questions from them and use them in this paper. She even told me that the essays are always repeated. Considering she’s always lambasting me over feeling CIE is superior, she has to be correct.
    Furthermore, we have the actual exams. Forget the cheating, forget the invigilation, forget the state of the centers, the examiners don’t check the papers correctly. They’re told that they’ll get Rs.XX for marking one exam paper so they try checking as many as they can. The flaw from this? They don’t check the papers correctly. Who knows, maybe I did an amazing exam but the examiner was too busy collecting money that he/she didn’t even think about looking through the exam and actually marking the exam. No, they have a book or 2 books, they’ve rote it so if the answer is from concepts, the candidate doesn’t get marks. This is true for MOST examiners (Reference: A family member who’s being working as a teacher and an examiner for over 30 years now. They check a maximum of 10 papers everyday because they take at least 30 minutes on each so that no one is unfairly marked, and I’m not going to name the person because of some personal concerns).
    So, I hope you understand why we undermine them. The checking of their papers is flawed, the books are flawed, the habit of rote learning is flawed, there’s cheating and other malpractices in the center(and outside of it) and the whole process of Inter and Matric is flawed. Instead of lambasting the only shining light in the current education system, we should take it as an example and turn our education system around as that is what will end what you call “the glorification and uncritical acceptance of the international examination boards available in Pakistan”.Recommend

  • Faizan

    Also, while we’re at it, I should also add how A level students are at a disadvantage in this country. Not only are we undermined by people like you, the amount of seats we get in universities is low(which explains the brain-drain from this country, not the fact that we’re all kids from rich people who can’t see us studying with people from lower classes(I know you didn’t say that, but it is a pretty prevalent ideology among most people in Pakistan)) and the amount of disrespect we get when we get there is unbelievable. Try cutting us some slack, ok? A percentage of our marks are deducted, and until 2 years ago, almost 20% of our marks were deducted for us to be equivalent to the inter students. Not that the equivalence is any good right now, we still have to face prejudice against us with the fact that even if we score an A* or a student scores a distinction, the maximum percentage they’ll get, according to the board of education, is 90. Who cares if a student topped the world, we need to cut their marks so they can be at the same level as the inter students(I don’t know what other reason they might have for doing this). Oh and these are only a few of the things going against us, I can go all night long writing how there’s prejudice prevalent here, but I can’t. So, this is just another point for you to tell you how we’re not wrong in judging them when we study hours and get maximum grades only for our marks to be cut down when joining universities. I hope my point was understood. Recommend

  • Clarus

    @Gandhi Jinnah:
    in which olevels/alevels subjects you had to memorize text? find me just one subject in which you have to memorize text the way you have to do in local boards and i will accept/agree rest of what you have said.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Nicely written.
    From what I have seen, once one gets into the real world it matters little if you’re a Metric pass or a Cambridge dude. What matters is ‘ what you are ‘ and not ‘ who you are ‘.

  • Haha

    I would like to applaud the writer,nicely written article indeed.I think its totally upto you which of these two streams you want to go for.In Pakistan what I have noticed is that as long as your “Angrazi’ is good/impeccable, you will be treated nicely/with respect,whether you did your matric or olevels…We Pakistanis really hate ourselves,we hate Urdu ,we hate our identity.Nowadays its become the ‘in thing’ to claim that you dont know urdu that well or you are bad at it.Have u ever come across an american who claims that he cant speak english?We dont respect ourselves thats why we are loathed all over the world.
    The thing is that at the end of the day you become what you want to become.It doesnt not matter which of these two streams you belong to.We all know people from these two different backgrounds are equally intellectual,It totally depends on the individual.Period.
    One more thing..please dont act like pinheads/peabrains/narrowminded people.Education teaches us to evolve! it teaches us to respect and tolerate each other so dont be “parahay likhay jahil”.Recommend

  • Arfa

    I too am an AS level student.While I do agree with you on your stance that the two systems are advocating class differences,its also true that when there’s a will,there’s a way. I did my last year of O’levels on scholarship and this year my AS too. Now that certainly proves that money is not the major driving force for the CIEs,doesn’t it?If you have what it takes then money issues cannot hinder your way.Period.
    Secondly,practicing pastpapers certainly helps because you learn to apply your concepts and analyse different situatons accordingly to present your answers.
    As for the CIE candidates being at a disadvantage when it comes to admissions to local universities,it certainly is a bit inequitious since CIE candidates do work harder than those of the local board.However, when it comes to actual university courses,CIE candidates have an edge over their Intermediate friends. A few young doctors doing their residencies from the Aga Khan Hospital claimed that those of their peers who had taken their A’levels exams instead of the Intermediate ones, easily sweeped through the first two years of their MBBS while the rest had to canoe their way through really hard.
    One of cousins, an extremely intelligent and talented girl gave her 9th exams from the Metric board.However,she could not continue the grade 10 of the system since her family moved to Saudia Arabia.There,she is struggling with the CIE O’Level syllabus given the entirely different nature of the two systems.The phycics,biology,chemistry & even math concepts are more advanced. Besides, I don’t get the point of having to study the digestive systems of cockroaches, like the Intermediaate students are obliged to,if im not wrong.As CIE candidates, is it not then better to have a basic,useful understanding of how our body works?
    Undoubtfully, the CIE system polishes one’s analytical skills and thinking abilities,preparing one for the tough university courses and professional life that awaits them.However, we must remember that at the end of the day, its the student’s own abilities that count and mould his future.Recommend

  • A.H

    I think the CIE examinations are better than the Matric, because if you look at the exams themselves, they make you have to think a lot. It’s not about just knowing what the book text says, you have to apply the concepts you’ve learned and think about the knowledge in a practical and applicable way. I think this is a very good skill for everyone to learn.

    “Such a Eurocentric understanding of Pakistan’s issues, without proper contextual references, has the potential to turn academia into a dangerous space for unsuspecting Pakistani students”
    I don’t agree with this. All the subjects like Math and Physics and objective, science subjects which can’t be biased or prejudiced. The Pak Studies books are written by Pakistanis, and in my opinion, they are mostly unbiased (when they are biased, they’re biased towards Pakistan) and never lean towards Britian or the West. This goes for Islamiat as well.

    I didn’t choose to go into Matric after eighth grade because I really do think Matric, at this time, is not a very good system. I think O and A levels will help me more.Recommend

  • Aslam

    Young lady what do you mean by “Eurocentric”. Any Eurocentrism is counterbalanced by the massive Pak centrism of our education system. I have studied in Pakistan and and went to England for my degree. In England students are taught to be skeptical and question and not believe everything they read. The difference in capabilities of the students is huge especially in subjects like history where one has to be especially self-critical. What we learn in Pakistan in my opinion is just propaganda. It is all self-justifying lies which we are all eager to believe. I find it patronizing and insulting to my intelligence to be expected to believe what is in our textbooks.Recommend

  • Unknown

    :) local board or CIE doesn’t matter. What you have learned, does matter. People who thinks that CIE make them better, have actually superiority complex and nothing else. People had done and currently doing PhDs even after getting their basic education from local boards and now in USA, and all over the world. Recommend

  • Waqas Abbasi

    I don’t understand your point, how can socio-political conditions be involved in Physics, Maths, etc.Recommend

  • Hatter

    I am unfortunately one of those people who used to look down upon SSC/HSSC students. In fact in grade 8 my biggest fear was failing to achieve enough marks to do O’ Levels. I used to pray to Allah to let me get through in that board which is best for me but then I would direct my prayers towards getting admission in O’levels. For a seemingly humble girl who was against class divide I suffered from a superiority complex because of my O and A’ Levels education by turning down my nose towards SSC/ HSSC students for five years. Once I entered college however I realized your educational background hardly matters instead its about how well you do in college and how you groom yourself in those college years for future job prospects. Now in the employment field the matriculation students are at par with Cambridge Board students in fact quite a few matriculation students are better off employment wise as compared to Cambridge Board students.
    I would however like to clarify one thing at least in my surrounding I have seen children of well to do parents doing SSC/HSSC rather than O/A’ levels so its not necessarily a class divide between the two boards. However, i concede that predominantly its the relatively poorer class at least in urban areas that does SSC/HSSC. I have had the privilege of living in both the rural and urban areas and in the rural areas the better off land owner’s children still do SSC/HSSC.Recommend

  • mic

    @Hatter: I second your comment. Although, I belong to a humble background my parents worked really hard to provide me with O/A level education, and along the way I got sucked into this “CIE is better”. However, now that I’ve got an Engineering degree and is employed, I believe that it really does not matter what educational background you had!! Eventually, everything boils down to how does a person utilizes resources available to him/her at any moment. I have seen students getting into MIT and Harvard with a FSc degree, and those with O/A level to their name failing in getting into any college (in Pakistan or abroad).

    I appreciate the writer for writing a pretty good piece (albeit an essay, not a journalism stuff) and bringing into light a very important issue. However, it were some of these comments that I think should be highlighted to depict the decayed thinking of those with wealth and so called class…

    The writer should work hard and get very good grades, May Allah be with you!!!Recommend

  • Ammar

    We proudly present the largest online database of CIE academic contents in Pakistan e.g CIE Resources. We move with the aim to make education FAST, COMMON, & EASILY accessible for each and every Pakistani and others. People who are seeking knowledge and looking around for a better CIE educational material and guidance system to enhance their academic skills may now connect to CIE platform. It is developed to digitize the paper based academic learning material to allow easy E-access for all sort of CIE, CIE Solved Assignments, CIE Past Papers, CIE Thesis, CIE Guess Papers, CIE Notes and regular updates just for free. We initiate with the hope of better educated Pakistan join us to us to make it possible.Recommend