Heads' Tips - GCSE choices
During the first three years at Senior School, pupils follow a broad and balanced curriculum. Towards the end of that time, however, girls will start to select the subjetcs that they wish to continue to GCSE level. Making decisions at what seems such an early point in their academic life can prove daunting. Below are some tips to help you as a parent support your daughter as she considers her options.
Getting the balance right:
- Your daughter’s school will have core certain subjects that are compulsory, including Maths, English and Science, and rules about which other combinations are possible within this framework. Try to encourage her to keep a balance of subjects – a humanity (History, Geography , RS), a second language if at all possible, and a practical or creative subject (Drama, Music, DT etc)
- Keep a balance between different areas of the curriculum, but do think carefully about science. If she is studying just two sciences then it is advisable to combine either Biology and Chemistry, or Physics and Chemistry as these are more sensible combinations, especially if she might study science A levels.
- Make sure she chooses a good spread of subjects to keep her options open for further study (usually A-levels) or careers. A broad portfolio of ‘optional’ subjects is essential as this allows her to demonstrate strengths in different areas – universities and employers value this. However, this should be balanced against the need to play to your daughter’s strengths and interests so as to generate the best possible grades and enjoyment of study.
- Quality not quantity! GCSEs should not be a paper chase – it is not in your daughter’s interest to do as many GCSEs as possible. She should have the time and opportunity to take up new extra curricular activities and continue the ones she already enjoys. Sporting interests, continuing to play a musical instrument or taking part in Duke of Edinburgh are activities that are rated by the universities and they will be interested in knowing what your daughter has done in addition to her GCSEs to develop her character.
- If your daughter is not an academic high flier, it is not worth making her do too many subjects. The effort of keeping too many balls in the air may result in her dropping several of them; if she had one fewer in the first place the overall results may be better. A little less stress for your daughter also means less stress for parents!
Are all subjects equal?
- Yes and No! They are all equal in terms of the weightings attached on them as GCSE subjects but some subjects are more equal than others. For example, ‘core’ GCSEs such as Maths, English and Science are very important in keeping a balanced curriculum option and usually highly desirable for most A-level subjects (although there are individual differences here (e.g., Art, Photography may be less prescriptive). Some A-levels recommend that the same subject is studied at GCSE level (e.g. Maths) but others do not (e.g, Law, Business Studies and Psychology). Seek advice and check your facts.
- While in theory all subjects are equal at GCSE most would agree that taking too many ‘softer’ subjects (Art, Drama, ICT, Food etc) could work against your daughter. On the other hand, if that’s what she’s good at and enjoys, then choose it – high grades matter too.
- Ensure she is aware of how much of her own time she will have to give to subjects with a practical component
What about the E-Bacc?
Looking ahead to beyond GCSE
- Your daughter should not be too quick to see herself as a ‘scientist’ or a ‘humanities’ student, as combinations of these subjects will be encouraged right up to A Level, and universities will be looking for students with breadth as well as depth in their choice of subjects.
- If your daughter has a particular university course in mind do check whether specific GCSEs are required or would be an advantage. For a Psychology degree for example, she may well need an A or B grade in Maths at GCSE, in addition to her A-levels. Finding out in year 11 that it would have been a good idea to have studied History if she wants to do Law at Uni is a bit late. Encourage some careers research now even though it seems a long way off before University
- If your daughter already has a particular career in mind she can find out what is required by using a computer database, such as KUDOS, and the careers sections in the library. Bear in mind though that by the end of Year 11 she might have very different aspirations.
- Keep in mind also here that there is life beyond A-levels – and not just University! As tuition fees are being introduced across Universities in almost all subjects, many companies and other organisations are offering A-level students direct entry career routes onto scholars and fellows programmes (e.g., financial services industry, Armed forces etc.) and are being considered a valid alternative to a University degree. Think carefully, however, about the long-term impact of not-going to University straight away – again seek advice from school.
What to do if she can’t decide
- Seek advice from subject teachers, personal tutors and her head of Careers. They have the latest advice and guidance to help sign-post you all in the right direction. Be flexible and listen to their advice.
- Consider Joining ISCO (independent schools careers organisation) or COA (Cambridge Occupational assessors) who will give you a detailed assessment of her interests and skills – they also give detailed advice, guidance and support to help your daughter think along certain lines of enquiry which she can then follow up in school.
- Encourage her to choose subjects that she enjoys and is good at. Two years studying a subject is a long time and she will want to keep motivated and interested to achieve the very best grade she can. Play to her strengths.
- Beware of choosing subjects for the wrong reasons e.g.:
- because her best friend is doing it (they may not be in the same classes anyway)
- because her current teacher is her favourite (the teacher may teach a different class for GCSE).
- because a very well meaning and persuasive subject teacher wants her to take their subject
- Her interest must be in the subject itself, not the teacher. A positive indicator would be that she is successful in the subject, can cope competently with its demands and enjoys the lessons. Unfortunately we are not always good at the things we like and sometimes do not like the things at which we are good.
- The subject tutors who know your daughter best will be able to give you a really good insight into the demands and challenges of a particular GCSE subject and help her decide if it is the right fit for your daughter and her future ambitions.
- Consider what skills she enjoys using (using language to express herself, reading, solving problems etc) and see how they are used, stretched and challenged in the different GCSE subjects.
- Think about her preferred ways of working – is she good at coursework or equivalent? If so, encourage her to choose subjects where she has the opportunity to do some personal research. If not, avoid subjects which have heavily weighted components of coursework such as ICT and Food Studies. Does she like working in groups? If not, then Drama may not be the thing for her.
- What do her extra-curricular activities tell you about the kinds of things she likes to do: team working, leadership, working on her own, being creative and designing and making things: these skills could help decide which subjects to follow at GCSE and give an indication of the kind of career path she might choose to follow.
- If all else fails
- ask her which subjects she could not imagine being absent from her Year10 timetable?
- draw up a list of pros and cons for each subject!
- Finally – remember that these are your daughter’s choices, not yours! Do give her advice, but play to her strengths not your own. Because you were good at a particular subject is not a good enough reason to insist she takes it. Likewise, just because you have always regretted not taking Geography for example, doesn’t mean you should make your daughter take it if she would really rather not. Don’t worry if she goes on her own track. Be ready for it. ULTIMATELY – THE CHOICE AND THE WORK ARE HERS.
With thanks to the Heads and staff at the following schools:
Edgbaston High School, Howell’s School Cardiff GDST, Ipswich School, James Allen’s Girls’ School, Kings High School, Warwick, Leicester High School, Manor House School, Roedean, Sir William Perkins’s School, St Andrew’s School Bedford, St Catherines’ Bramley, St Margaret’s School Bushey, St Mary’s Cambridge, St Swithuns, Stonar School, Woldingham School.