We are entering the time of year when year 9 students begin to choose what subjects they wish to take for GCSE. It may be that you aren’t sure how best to support your son or daughter; or you may be very informed and confident. Here we fill in some of the blank spaces or confirm what you already know (so you can sleep easier at night).
A word of warning: individual situations may vary slightly, depending on the school your son or daughter attends. For example, in some schools option choices are made in year 8 as opposed to year 9. And some GCSE exams are taken a year early in year 10, rather than year 11.
A good place to start is by understanding what is happening for your son or daughter and what to expect. Many students in year 9 from now until about April begin to make decisions about what GCSE choices they wish to take in years 10 and 11. These choices will vary significantly from school to school, with some schools also offering BTEC qualifications alongside GCSEs.
In terms of how young people develop; it’s worth noting that most students won’t know what they want to do when they’re older. And if they do, it is very likely these ideas will change over time; this is perfectly ‘normal’[i]. Having said this, some students may have very clear ideas (but these students are likely to be in the minority).
To help students develop their careers ideas many schools have a careers library with useful books. They’ll also have resources on their school web pages. In addition a list of useful “Websites for Careers Research” can be found as a handout at: www.cxk.org/resources along with many other useful career guides for people of all ages.
A question students often ask is; how do you make decisions if you don’t know what you want to be or do when you’re older? A number of strategies can be considered, neither is right nor wrong.
Your child may wish to choose their subjects based on:
Taking subjects you’re good at and/or enjoy often means you’ll get higher grades in those areas. This increases the range of options available to you at post-16. You may also have a more enjoyable time in school during your studies. This will give you a better quality of life and minimise stress or worry.
Certain subjects are highly useful in developing transferable skills for the future, often being useful in more than one setting. For example, studying history allows you to learn about historical events. But it also enables you to develop your analytical, comprehension and essay skills; all of which are desirable in careers requiring these skills such as areas of law and business.
Numerous reports[ii] talk about the affect automation is having on the possible careers we can pursue, with some roles being replaced by robots and computers. Leading commentators, have discussed the benefits of building skills and abilities in areas which automation will struggle to replace. For example roles involving creativity, empathy and ingenuity. Useful careers websites such as http://explore.skillsroute.com/main , https://www.nesta.org.uk/quiz/will-robot-take-my-job/ and the BBC’s “Will a robot take your job”[iii] allow students to explore which roles face a greater chance of automation and identify the skills and subjects they may need to circumnavigate this threat. A counterpoint to this idea of mass automation, is that some reports have highlighted that AI and automation may lead us to sharing the world of work with robots, rather than being replaced by them[iv].
An alternative way to choose subjects is to consider whether these are things you wish to take with you into life as a broader life skill, for fun or because you wish to have this knowledge. For example, taking food technology not because you wish to be a chef but because you wish to be able to cook when you move out of home or live away at university. Perhaps you wish to take Spanish because you want to travel when older; rather than because you wish to work as a translator or in international business.
Mental health is increasingly important in our lives. It may be that you choose a subject which helps you to de-stress, decompress and cope. A variety of articles online, highlights the importance of this in our school lives and the concern with regards the decline in creative subjects to support this[v]. This is an area of concern for us at CXK so we have resources to support mental health which, can be found at www.cxk.org/resources along with details of our services in this area for schools and young people https://www.cxk.org/our-services/services-young-people/.
Lastly, you may choose a subject because it forms the foundation for a career, such as taking art for architecture or VFX design. You might take a subject to try it out, to see whether you wish to take it further after post-16 for a career. I’ve seen many students take computing or engineering as an option, as they’re curious about what is involved and want to see if it’s for them.
As I said before, this period of our children’s lives is the start of an age of exploration. Where they figure out the sort of adults they wish to become and the areas of work they wish to pursue. Such exploration takes time. And many will see their ideas change and develop even as they progress into their late teens and early twenties.
It maybe that your son/daughter chooses their GCSE options based on a combination of some or all of the above. However, when choosing subjects, there are certain pitfalls which are worth being aware of or to be cautious of.
If they are deciding whether or not to take history or geography as a subject, it is worth being aware that if they choose not to take these for GCSE and then decide that they wish to study them for A-Level or IB, the majority of 6th Forms will have preferred them to already have studied the subject they are wishing to take for GCSE. Very few 6th Forms, will let them take these as A-levels without prior study.
If deliberating whether to take any of the art subjects there are two areas of importance to note. We’ve seen a growth of careers which require or find useful a prior training in the arts. Traditionally this was within the area of architecture; where a combination of maths, physics and art at year 9 kept open the pathways to these A-Levels at post-16. Then later training via an architecture degree (as one of several pathways). Now, we see a growth in VFX and digital art degrees which ideally look for students to have a skillset in both art and maths.
Secondly, if students don’t pick an art related subject at this time then, if in post-16 wish to study this to a higher level, without this GCSE as a foundation many of them will have to study at college at a lower level first (unless they have kept this open through activities outside of school).
Similar to the arts, if not taken as a subject choice in year 9, students will need to start their training at a lower level before being able to progress. Although, it’s worth noting that if students don’t take this subject at GCSE it’s still possible to enter this area of study and work. This can be achieved by working through the levels from the bottom up in post-16.
Arguably, this is the hardest subject to pick up later if not taken now; with very few options to do so in mainstream education later on. Partly due to this, MFL forms part of the EBacc[vi]; a performance measure which schools are measured by the government on.
For some schools, parents and students the EBacc is a contentious matter. Whether the EBacc is compulsory for all students or not will depend on school policy. If it is, they will have to take English language and literature, maths, sciences; and then a choice of geography or history and a language from their option choices. The government feels that these choices help prepare students for a range of different careers; allowing them to keep their options open.
It may be worth noting, that the Russell Group also offer advice on their website, which may be useful further down the line when choosing A-Levels in year 11 (one of many different choices at post-16). Although, as an approach it isn’t without its critics, as some point out that this isn’t the only option in town for the future[viii] yet, these choices at post-16 do link to choices in year 9 (so worth being aware so as to avoid further potential pitfalls down the line[ix]).
In contrast to the EBacc some schools will offer BTECs as part of their option choices. In contrast to traditional GCSEs these offer a different way of learning which may suit some students as they are predominantly coursework based and in some cases focus on honing practical skills. Contrary to some opinions, BTECs can open doors in their areas of study; providing a foundation for many options at post-16 including 6th Form, college and apprenticeships. A balanced way to consider the choice between GCSE and BTECs is to consider where your daughter or son may thrive best. If your son or daughter would struggle with exams and achieve a lower grade in this form of study, arguably taking a BTEC may provide them with the tools to gain a higher grade at the end of year 11; thereby keeping open a wider range of options for post-16.
Regardless of which options and approaches resonate the most, doing your research is important. Students shouldn’t assume that studies at GCSE will be the same as what they’ve done so far. Formats can vary as can content. So it’s crucial they speak to the subject teachers at their school to find out what a course is like; what is involved; what it will cover; as well as how it is taught.
From experience, the students I see later in year 11 who are most disappointed in the option choices they made in year 9 are those who didn’t do their research; who assumed that they could tell what a course was like just from its name.
If possible, ask your child to speak to older children in the school who are studying the subjects they are interested in. They could also attend tasters of these subjects in school (if offered).
Many schools will also run open evenings for parents and carers to attend so they can support their children with the decision making. These are well worth attending as subjects often change. It’s also easy for us as parents to assume that the subjects we studied at school haven’t changed (they have). Whilst at these events, discuss with subject teachers not just how the subjects are taught and what they cover, but also how much homework will be involved. This is a question which is often overlooked by students! In addition, familiarise yourself with the current process at your child’s school. It can vary significantly from school to school and even year to year.
Finally, the usual words of caution are offered to students, parents and carers alike. Choose based on your interests and values, not those of your friends. Don’t choose a subject based on the like or dislike of a teacher. They may not be there next year and may place your own plans for the future at risk.
Lastly, give yourself time to stop, think and reflect before making your final decisions.
All of this may feel a little daunting, but our careers advisers in schools as well as our colleagues at the National Careers Service helpline for teenagers: https://www.gov.uk/careers-helpline-for-teenagers are here to support you if you have any questions or queries.
As mentioned at the start, according to some experts many of us won’t know what we really want to do until we are closer to our thirties. Our teenage years and twenties are often spent “trying out” and “finding out” about the things we may wish to do or be. For our children, these years are a series of transitions and transformations, as they begin to fulfil their destinies; for parents and careers this can be somewhat nerve wracking! If you find you, your son or daughter need support, please contact us at CXK and we will do what we can to help.
CXK provides a variety of support services, for people of all ages, including emotional wellbeing, careers information, advice and guidance and study programmes.
Written by Chris Targett, Careers Adviser and Area Manager for Information, Advice & Guidance