Year 9 Options: A Guide to Making your GCSE Choices

Are you choosing your options to take into GCSEs or supporting your son or daughter with these choices? What are the basics you will need to know? How might these choices affect your career options later? Here, we help answer these questions.

Changing times, changing you

Firstly, it is likely you will not have an idea of what you would like to be or do when you are older; research tells us that most of us won’t know what we will want to be or do until we are closer to thirty than thirteen; or if we do, our aspirations are likely to change (although of course, there are always exceptions to the rule)[i]. A key reason for this is that we learn through experience, not just about what we like and enjoy but also what we want out of life and what is available in the world. As we get older, our ideas about what we are aiming for are likely to change, as we continue to build and evolve our ideas of what we want out of life. As we age, we accumulate more experiences and in doing so, our values can change, as well as priorities and sometimes even outlook.  

Secondly, the jobs which will be available to us in the future are likely to be very different to some of the jobs available today[ii]. We may not be able to predict with one hundred percent accuracy which of these jobs will be undertaken by robots or computers, but we can make educated guesses based on what we know and can see happening in the world around us[iii]. Many jobs of the future will not even exist yet, and yet the subjects we choose to take for GCSEs and the skills we decide to grow over the years will affect how many of these jobs will be open to us. It is fair to say that some of these jobs will be jobs we know today, but transformed by technology so as to be quite different. We can start to see this already in occupations which are familiar to us such as teaching; a few years ago interactive white boards were fairly rare, now they are common place in our schools.

This means that you are preparing for an unknown future where you may not know which skills you will need. Alongside this, you are also changing. It is likely that you may not have found a direction or purpose by Year 9; this can make decision making about what to take for your GCSEs quite tricky.

Keeping options open

The good news is that our compulsory subjects in school keep open most career options for the future, with our optional subjects enhancing the paths we may wish to take by allowing us to grow areas of interest and skills further. For example, every occupation will require reasonable levels of Maths and English (which we each have to take for GCSE). However, areas such as the arts and languages as well as humanities are easier to get into now, if taken now as an option, as opposed to later. 

Subjects where we need to be cautious are as follows:

If you have a vague interest of pursuing a career within the arts it would be an advantage to take these as option subjects for GCSE, as the longer you practice the better you will become - so, starting early can really help. It is worth being aware that some of the emerging careers such as in the areas of Visual Effects (VFX), look for skills in these areas (alongside Mathematics).

If you haven’t taken these for GCSE and after Year 11 you decide that you wish to follow a career in these areas, broadly speaking there are three ways you can return to this career path (depending on your situation). Either, retake your art at college from a lower level after Year 11, or pursue the area as a hobby and/or via home tuition alongside other study or training.

Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) are the one set of subjects where it is much, much harder to pick up later if not taken now (although there are a few exceptions to this rule). In terms of how this area could affect your career in the future, a recent report by the British Council has listed the shortage subjects for us as “Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German.”[iv] In the same report, it raises the impact of taking or not taking a MFL for young people if they wish to work overseas when older.

Crucially, this is applicable for any type of work whether business, the arts, science, law or engineering; having a language can be highly advantageous if you wish to work abroad. Even in countries such as the USA, Canada or even the UK, which are predominantly English speaking, you may be working for a multinational organisation where you will be either required to work in other countries, or working with counterparts from other countries. Being able to speak their language as well as understanding their cultural influences can be a huge benefit. If considering a career in this area and you have the ability, it maybe worth taking.

Geography and History, if not taken for GCSE, are difficult to carry on with to A-level and beyond. However, some 6th Forms will let you take these subjects if your science (for Geography) or English (for History) GCSE results are strong enough and you haven’t taken Geography or History as options for GCSE.

For subjects such as Health & Social Care, Engineering, Business, Animal Care, Psychology and Sociology - if these are not taken now, you can still take these subjects after GCSE without having to retake at a lower level first (unlike the arts). However, taking these options as a GCSE choice can be useful if you wish to find out whether you like them, which will help inform whether you take them as a Post-16 choice at college, an apprenticeship or a 6th Form later. Taking options as a way of trying out ideas or subjects for your future can be a very useful process in ruling things in or out; as you “try them out”.

What is very important is knowing how your options will be taught, as some of you will prefer some aspects of a subject more than others, as well as preferring certain study styles. Where you study will affect the range of options on offer and what they are like, as well as the facilities available to you within each area.

Top-tip: you can’t tell what a subject will be like just by the title. For example, Technology can sometimes be a subject which isn’t as practical as its title may suggest (depending on how it is taught), therefore research is really important!

Imagine choosing a sweet in a sweet shop without trying it first or by just assuming it is as you think it is? Who knows what flavour you will get or whether you will actually like it!

On open evenings speak to your subject teachers, find out what is taught and how. Many students are unsure about the differences between GCSEs and BTECs, which are both equivalent to each other, but the latter often involves more coursework (however, due to changes in syllabus both now have some exams).

Advice

Reasons for taking subjects will be varied and will differ for each of you. Some of you will choose subjects because you have a career or range of careers in mind, whereas others of you may choose a subject because you love it and wish to study it further. For a few of you, it could be because you want these skills for the future outside of any career, such as learning to cook so you can be self-sufficient when at University or when you leave home. Or, you may take a MFL if you wish to travel or holiday abroad.

In terms of advice, there are a couple of schools of thought; one is that if you are unsure of what you wish to do, keeping your options open is worthwhile[v]. However, a counter argument is that some of the most successful people we meet get there due to a single minded focus and not giving up; sometimes called grit[vi]. These individuals sacrifice everything to achieve their dreams (just look at many successful athletes)… the caveat of course, is that not all of us can be successful athletes and there is of course a huge risk taking this approach. Yet, we must be mindful that some individuals do better with having a safety net (keeping options open) and others don’t. Lastly, taking an approach which embraces curiosity and choosing subjects because they intrigue you, is another different approach you could take; one which embraces uncertainty and being open to the unplannable[vii]. What is key is that there isn’t one approach that works for every individual; each will have their pros and cons. 

How can you help yourself?

As we have discussed, research and experiences are key, as the more you find out about what the world can offer, the more you will understand what is possible and the skills you need to grow. Talking to staff as well as students who have taken the courses is important, but also finding out where the courses can lead can be inspiring, whether through books in your careers library at school, work experience[viii] or careers websites. Listed below are some websites which, may help with this research:   

Lastly, talk to your friends and family, as they may be able to offer you insights with regards your strengths and weaknesses that you were unaware of.

If, however, you find yourself lost or require further help, make sure you speak to your independent careers adviser in school. If you find that you don’t have access to an independent adviser, please make contact with us at:  info@cxk.org or tel: 01233 224244 and we will do what we can to support you.  

Written by: Chris Targett

Wednesday 10th January 2018