Are you studying for GCSEs? Do you have kids heading for GCSEs? This guide to GCSE options will help you better understand the choices you may be asked to make.

What are GCSEs?

GCSEs stand for General Certificate of Secondary Education and represent the culmination of formal education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Traditionally, children begin GCSE preparation in Year 10 and complete examinations at the end of Year 11. On average, students take between 6 and 9 GCSEs.

Where before there may have coursework or modular units, now there is the only end of Year 11 examinations. The grading system in England has changed to Grade 9 – 1, to represent the tightening of standards and an increase in difficulty in the new GCSEs.

GCSE grade 4 and above represents a pass at Level 2 and a gateway to Level 3 study. Level 3 study includes A-Levels, BTECH and HND qualifications, which in turn lead to study at university. Students require Grade 4 in English and Maths to continue onto Level 3 in all areas of further education.

Teacher advising student

Why do students need to choose GCSEs?

The reason students choose GCSEs is to allow more time to the subjects that young people are interested in. It is felt that by the age of 14 students have enough understanding of talents and preferences that they should be given the chance to tailor their education.

There are very few Year 9s who have little idea of what they want to do in the future or what subjects they would like to continue. Even those who do not know what to choose, the options process prompts them to think about the future. So, the direction of choosing GCSEs is timely, as it adds a level of seriousness that is much needed at this point in learning.

Also, there is only so much curriculum time in a week. Up to Year 9 students may only receive one hour of learning in subjects such as History, Geography and Languages. This is not seen as sufficient time to study for a qualification – especially one that will lead to further education. Therefore, even if children may not feel ready to choose, there is a practical reason to reduce the number of subjects covered.

In reality, there is little that a student cannot go onto do no matter subjects they take. Even if a student drops a subject at GCSE, it is possible to pick it up again at some point in the future should they need to. Therefore, although it might seem young to plan out the future path or career, there is every chance to make changes and adaptations to this roadmap as they progress.

What are the options available at GCSE?

Which GCSE subjects are compulsory?

The number of choices a student must make is limited. A lot of the timetable is directed by compulsory subjects, including English Language, English Literature, and Science. If you live in Wales, students will also be expected to learn Welsh. These core subjects are fundamental to learning in all other subjects. They, therefore, have a larger influence on the school’s results and the perception as to whether a school is successful or not. Therefore, these subjects are likely to take up 50% of the learning time, even at GCSE.

What are the foundation subjects?

Added to these compulsory subjects, which are studied to GCSE qualifications, there are foundations subjects which must be studied. However, these foundation subjects are unlikely to end with a GCSE qualification. It is just thought that continued access to study in this area is too important to leave behind. The foundation subjects include IT, Citizenship (sometimes called RE and sometimes referred to as Philosophy), and PE.

What choices are likely to be available?

The choice available is between subjects placed in groups. Students must select one subject from the Arts, one from Design and Technology, one from Humanities, and one from Modern Foreign Languages. Some schools do not insist on this, but most will. This is because one set of data the school is judged by is how many students achieve GCSE qualifications in this combination of subjects. Some schools do not insist on a second language subject for students who may struggle with first language study.

There is a good reason for asking students to select from groups of subjects. The idea is to provide a reasonable balance between areas of study. Some students in the past would dominate their timetable with highly practical and creative subjects, abandoning academic study. This was thought to be to their detrimental in further education. Alternatively, students who packed timetables with many book-based subjects lacked the opportunity to develop creative thinking and problem-solving prompted by more practical subjects.

Opting for alternatives

In some circumstances, a school will offer alternative provision at Key Stage 4. This is to help personalise the educational experience for students. This can either be because a student needs a greater challenge or needs additional support. It may be that a school will offer options to gifted students that are not available to others, for instance. This may include study at A Level. In contrast, there are vocational subjects that some students would enjoy and would help them develop skills for future employment.

Another alternative is the offer of taking only three options. This leaves space on the timetable for students to receive additional help in English and Maths. As students cannot progress to Level 3 study without a standard pass in these subjects, extra time is seen as essential for some.

What happens if there are two subjects that clash?

One of the most difficult decision points come when two loved subjects are placed in the same option block. A school’s timetable with being designed with Block A, Block B, Block C and Block D. For this timetable to be possible, each student must select one option from each block. This might mean that History and Art are placed in the same block. This means that a student would have to drop one of these subjects, even if they wanted to do both. It is unlikely there is a lot the person responsible for the school timetable can do about this, even if they hadn’t deemed this the best decision in the first place.

When subjects clash

It has been known for a school to listen to protests from parents when designing the option blocks. Therefore, if you or your child feel strongly enough about it, there may be some joy gained from meeting with the leadership of the school. This will be most effective if you join forces with other students’ parents who feel the same. It may not change the design of the timetable, but it may encourage the school to offer after school or extracurricular provision that your child can opt into.

How should choices be made?

There are lots of different motives for deciding on option subjects at GCSE. There is no reasoning that is particularly wrong or will cause a lasting impact on a child’s future. GCSEs offer a general preparation for further learning. This means dropping or keeping a subject will not change the future of a child radically.

By career choice

There are some professions where the GCSE choices made by students can be influential. For instance, scientific or technical occupations, jobs requiring mathematical knowledge, jobs with linguistic skills, artistic careers and some others. In short, if you are looking to enter a particularly difficult or highly competitive career, students need to make sure their options are appropriate.

The best way to know if a career choice is hard to enter is to look at how competitive higher education courses are. Medicine and law, for instance, require the highest grades at A-Level and often the only way to differentiate is the quality of results at GCSE. Some universities specify the number of GCSEs or specific GCSEs to apply for courses. Therefore, it is important that you encourage your child to do some research.

By balancing workload

Some subjects require a lot more work than others. This is because some are more academic than others and therefore a lot more emphasis is placed on writing. History, for instance, tends to be relatively weighty. However, there will be times when Art can become overwhelming. It is a good idea to ask teachers what the workload involves.

An excellent example of assessing workload is if Science is offered in an option block. Combined Science will be compulsory. However, there is the chance for students to take each Science subject: Biology, Physics and Chemistry, as separate GCSEs. This is essential for those hoping to be a doctor or a vet, or any particular technical scientific career. However, with this choice comes a lot of work. There are 9 examinations at the end of Year 11 for Science alone. Therefore, making the choice to take Science in this way needs to be weighed against the probable work pressures this will bring.

Options open

If your child has no idea what to do in the future, then it is a good idea to keep options open by balancing subjects. Encourage your child to study a range of subjects that offer different experiences and different skills. The variety of learning offered will help form your child to develop an understanding of their future between the age of 14 and 16. Remember, there is no door that closes firmly shut just because of GCSE options. There are ways of narrowing focus later in the child’s academic career – and there is no point in applying too much pressure here.

Enjoyable subjects

Choosing subjects that are enjoyable is not a crime. There is a strange impression that examination study should be a chore and should require hard work with no pleasure. The truth is that subjects that a student enjoys at school are going to signal a future career possibility. It is likely a greater indicator of a passion or a talent than anything else and there is some benefit for future contentment in heading towards something they enjoy.

Even if the subject will only ever be a hobby or interest, we all need these too. It is easy to narrow choices down to choices of work. Students should be encouraged to see life in broader strokes than a narrow path to a career.

Teacher advise and peer pressure

Should students be guided and influenced by others? Well, all teachers will have an opinion about whether a student should take their subject or not. Teachers have a certain vested interest in attracting some students to subjects. If the student has a talent in Drama or an aptitude for Geography – then the teacher will be extra keen to get the positive outcomes they will bring. Therefore, even though teachers act ethically and in the best interest of students, they are not unbiased.

However, it is a good idea to speak to teachers and see if the subject is a good fit. Some subjects have a stronger requirement for literacy skills – and so being good at English is important. History, for instance, requires students to write essays in examination conditions. There are other subjects that require stronger numeracy skills – Computer Science, for instance. Listening to the teacher to see if the subject will be a particular struggle is no bad thing.

If a child wants to take a subject because they like the current teacher, then this might be a problem. The chance that they get the same teacher in Year 10 is small. Schools like to give students a diet of different teachers and different approaches. The personality of a teacher can make a subject more appealing. It is best to challenge a child if they say they want to take a subject just because the lessons have been made fun or different by an outstanding teacher.

Worse than choosing a subject for a popular teacher is choosing a subject because a friend is taking the subject. This friend may not be placed in the same group as your child and then they are just stuck with a subject they didn’t really want. Equally, peer pressure on what is perceived to be a feminine subject or masculine subject – for worry of what friends or others might say – is over-estimating how much others will care. Whilst your son is taking Textiles, as he has a passion for fashion photography, his friends and peers will be doing their own thing. By the time he reaches the middle of Year 10, no one will care.

Learning style

One of the best ways to decide is to choose those subjects that match the learning style of the student. If your child likes working with people – then Computer Science may not be for them – as most of this work is just between them and the computer. If they prefer hands-on learning, then more practical DT subjects may be beneficial, along with GCSE PE and maybe Art.

Students can take learning style quizzes that reveal how they like to learn. Then, you can speak to them about which subjects use this style of learning.

How do GCSEs influence the future?

What you might not want to reveal to your child is the relative unimportance of GCSE results. The further students progress through qualifications, the less important GCSEs become. After A Level results are released, the GCSE results are hardly relevant. When doing a degree – the GCSEs are no more than a way that a student was able to progress from Level 2 to 3 study.

Students might not benefit too much from knowing early on that the choices they make are not radically life-altering. However, as parents, it may temper the amount of pressure you put on your child to do what seems like the “right thing” to you.

It is worth noting to students that the GCSEs that will offer the best results will offer them the most choice in the future. At each stage, students need to aim to have the best qualifications possible.

In conclusion

The GCSE options will feel like a big deal to students and they may worry about whether they are making the right choice or not. In reality, the number of choices available is small and the potential consequence of wrong choices are small.

The best route through GCSE options is to follow this routine:

  • look carefully at attainment in the latest school report to see which subjects are strongest
  • ask teachers’ advice at the open evening devoted to option choices, and speak to a career’s advisor if necessary
  • encourage your child to take a learning styles questionnaire and to link this to their subjects
  • encourage them to research what is involved at GCSE in subjects and what this might mean for future choices
  • sit down with your child and list the pros and cons of each subject and look at the balance of all subjects to see if workload will be manageable
  • leave your child to it if you can – owning the choices will make discussions easier later if they start to worry they have done the wrong thing.

The school will offer lots of opportunities to speak to teachers and speak to relevant experts. Your child will also be spoken to in lessons and will be gently guided by those around them at school. Remember, nothing happens between 14 and 16 that cannot be addressed within a year in further education.