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How to choose GCSE subjects

As a tutor, I am often asked the question: “Which subjects should my child choose for GCSE?” Firstly,...

2 years ago

As a tutor, I am often asked the question: “Which subjects should my child choose for GCSE?” Firstly, not only is this an exceedingly personal choice, but secondly, it’s an extremely difficult one to answer! Whether the query comes  from parents or the students themselves, it is often coupled with a great deal of anxiety and a moderate dose of panic. Furthermore, when I’m helping others to refine their choices, I am also reminded of my own stressful  experience of decision making in Year 9.  

At the age of fourteen, I recall feeling overwhelming pressure to make the ‘right’ choice. I truly believed that my GCSE options were going to make or break future opportunities of success. I was lucky to have incredibly supportive parents who provided nothing but encouragement, but others were not necessarily so fortunate. I also remember the apparent unfairness of not being ‘allowed’ to take all the subjects that I wanted to – and I wasn’t the only one! 

Can my child choose their GCSEs freely? 

Whilst things may have moved on since I handed in my own GCSE options in 1999, in terms of a wider breadth of subject choice, some factors remain the same. For example, certain schools are still unable to cater for or timetable some subject combinations. Therefore, it’s important to closely study school criteria when it comes to aligning subjects so as to understand which are compulsory, in addition to various optional specialities and whether they can be studied in unison.  

It is always obligatory to study English Language at GCSE level, although some schools actually opt out of English Literature. The majority do favour the double English route, in addition to compulsory maths and science subjects.

Science can be taken as three separate subjects (Biology, Chemistry and Physics), or as a combined option resulting in two final grades. Most schools then favour a harmonious melody of other options, including a humanities area like Geography, History or Religious Education, along with an arts option such as Art and Design, Music, Drama or Media Studies. Technical GCSE subjects normally tick another box, for example  Computer Science, Design & Technology or Home Economics, whereas Modern Foreign Languages (op ed here for those who are interested) have sadly lost their place as  compulsory GCSE subjects. 

It is also interesting to note that some schools offer Citizenship Studies as an obligatory module. Additionally, please rest assured that not choosing sports at GCSE doesn’t mean that 15 to 16 year olds are not getting any exercise, as  PE sessions usually remain regular throughout.  

How many subjects are students expected to take? 

So far, we have discussed a potential list of compulsory components. However, when it comes to optional GCSE subjects, let’s open our minds to a decidedly more modern approach to secondary school and take the plunge into more progressive, sustainable learning with subject areas that cater for 21st century learning needs, creating lifelong learners who can think for themselves. 

Fostering a ‘future-proof’ approach to education, students should be encouraged to keep their options open, taking a range of subjects and hopefully those that they find enjoyable. That said, some schools are still fairly strict on how many other subjects can be picked, especially if they appear in the same box on the selection form or occupy the same teaching hours as others. This renders their practicality inviable and can thus, sadly, compromise some  pupils’ first choices of GCSE subjects.

In total, most students are expected to take around nine GCSE’s. Furthermore, achieving grades 4-9 (grading system explained here) in at least five subjects, is largely deemed desirable for the majority of further education and career opportunities, and of course there are also the much more demanding grade requirements of certain institutions. Bearing in mind that many Year 9 students still (naturally) have little idea of what they want to do in the future, expecting them to be aware of the requisites which will later define study or job applications could be a stretch – hence an emphasis on enjoyment and potential is key. 

Useful, interesting or both… 

Those of us who are now parents, teachers, carers or any other role model in a child’s life, will recognise that times have indeed changed. The once ‘necessary’ GCSE subjects which would ensure employability or were simply a  ‘safe bet’ may have lost their place to more contemporary options such as Moving Image Arts, Journalism, Dance, Food Preparation & Nutrition, Psychology or Geology – the list goes on… 

Nowadays, on that 21st century learning thread, many schools encourage students to embrace change and think critically. Their education involves opportunities of experimental learning in flexible learning environments, including vocational subject options, equivalent or similar qualifications. Plenty of schools are open to their students exploring personal interests and strengths. Some forward-thinking parents are less bogged down with traditional GCSE subjects and the fear of doing something different, whilst others understandably worry about their value in the professional world. 

Although newer GCSE subjects may seem quirky or pointless to some, they may be just the ticket to ensure the enjoyment and achievement of certain students. Longstanding, theoretical or seemingly more academic subjects are no less valuable – what’s most important is that each individual should be free to choose what they wish to study based on their personal  preferences, rather than those of their parents or friends.

AltThe GCSE subjects that our children choose will always have some use, and the more interested in them they are, the more effective their learning journey will be. 

I’m worried about my child’s potential to find a good job with their chosen subjects… 

It’s remarkable to think that some of today’s youth aspire to obtain jobs or live lifestyles that didn’t exist a decade or two ago. I’m not just talking about natural progression and development of the sectors, but also the inclusion of  technical advancements which allow for influencers and YouTubers to portray a career of choice. Whilst I do not wish to devalue these professions, I do try to encourage students to enjoy a wide variety of subjects which they are  passionate about. It is important to arm them with the knowledge that many  doors may open to them in the future and that success isn’t necessarily measured by ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ in all fields. 

I am pretty computer-literate, yet still feel like a dinosaur when trying to explain options to teenagers when their only wish is to have a successful Instagram account. Although this terrifies me, I do appreciate that social media managers, app developers and gamification experts now hold an extraordinarily valuable place in today’s market. Therefore, all ambitions should be championed and unrestricted when it comes to GCSE subject choices. Students should be discouraged from giving up or opting out of subjects just because they are yet to choose a career path. 

How can I help my child pick their optional elements? 

Where possible, talk to your children about their likes and dislikes at school, perhaps their strengths, weaknesses and wider interests. If they already hold specific future aspirations, then of course, nurture them. And if they don’t, don’t panic! A Year 9 student filling out their options form should be inspired to choose subjects which they believe will add some value to their lives, be that academic, for the future in general, or purely for enjoyment.  

I was extremely academic and one of my school’s favourites to take extra subjects and rank highly. However, I really had to stand my ground to take art and multiple languages. I ‘needed’ my art. It was my outlet, my relaxation time,  my passion. To this day, I am pleased about this decision, along with the choice to study more languages than were obligatory at the time. For students who love to travel, are fascinated by other countries and cultures, or already know that they would love to work abroad, then many languages are available to study at GCSE level.  

Ambassadors for a future-proof education invite students to study languages such as Arabic, Russian or Mandarin, in addition to French, Spanish etc. When it comes to languages, I believe that no choice is a wrong choice, as learning a language opens up so many  interesting channels, in addition to giving a great insight into and understanding of the English language. Students who wish to study any ancient languages or Ancient History at GCSE, should also be supported. 

Another dilemma when choosing my subjects, came when having to decide between GCSE History and Geography – I simply wasn’t allowed. Having had similar discussions with students and schools in more recent years, I now  imagine that this was purely a timetabling issue. Nobody justified this to me at the time, hence why I think it’s of upmost importance to explain to students ‘why’ they can’t take a particular subject if the situation arises and to guide them in finding satisfactory alternatives.  

Decision time – it might be easier than you think!

Having studied a wide spectrum of subjects throughout prior key stages, the two GCSE years should offer a seamless continuation of prolonged subjects, or an exciting introduction to something new, such as GCSE Business Studies or Engineering.  

As mentioned earlier, today’s generation of students have grown up in a highly digital and social media-inspired world. Their dreams and aspirations may not align with our own for them, nor do they reflect our own childhood ambitions. However, we should support them in making personal choices and take solace in knowing that so many incredible GCSE subject options are available  to them – the world literally is their oyster.  

Top factors to bear in mind and keep things simple: 

  • Discuss areas of interest and respective subjects 
  • Work on strengths where possible  
  • Support further research and speak to subject teachers.
  • Subject choices at GCSE will not close any doors – so enjoy them! 

About the author: Melissa Harvey is a multi-lingual teacher, private tutor and  educational writer.


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