Making The Right GCSE Choices

Making the right GCSE Choices

Tips for parents on making the right GCSE choices

For those parents with youngsters in year 9, many schools will hold their GCSE option evening at some point during this term. It is very likely that the school will produce a booklet of the choices that are available for your consideration which will also explain the option blocks from which choices can be made. Many parents find themselves asking at this stage, does it matter which subjects their child chooses to take and how do you go about making sure they are studying subjects which they enjoy, are passionate about, but that will set them off on the right path towards sixth form and courses of study after school? With this in mind, it can be useful to be armed with some key facts when supporting your children with these decisions for the first time.

What are GCSE’s:

GCSE is the short form for General Certificate of Secondary Education and these are the first public examinations your child will take. Taken at the age of 16, when your child finishes year 11, they are used by both employers and universities as evidence of a student’s academic ability at this stage of their education. They are available in a wide variety of subjects. Most children tend to take between 8-11 subjects, depending on the recommendation of their school and their academic ability. The course is designed to be studied over two years in years 10 and 11, although some schools encourage pupils to study certain courses in one year, taking the exams at the end of year 10.

IGCSE or International General Certificate of Secondary Education is increasingly offered as an option in certain subjects. These are selected by some schools as they are often considered to have more challenging content and their tendency is to have less assessed coursework, which can ensure students are better prepared for the next phrase of their education when they reach AS/A2 or IB.  Most schools now offer a mixture of both GCSE and IGCSE qualifications.

Modules and Coursework

Currently a number of examination boards offer GCSE’s that are modular in their design. (Material is studied in topic based chunks with an exam at the end of each chunk at various stages of the course). The results of these modules are gradually ‘clocked up’ over the course of the two years, to give the eventual grade, so there is much less emphasis on testing the ‘whole syllabus’ at the end of the two year course.

However, the Government plans to change this system for all students starting GCSE syllabuses in September 2012. Assuming this goes ahead, we will be returning to a more examination based system, with no opportunities to re-sit particular modules of a course to work towards a better grade. The vast majority of courses will, in future, be assessed by end of year two examinations in year 11, although some controlled assessment/course work will remain (typically up to 25% of a course, more for practical subjects).

Most subject courses result in one standard GCSE being awarded, however one exception is Science. Here pupils can study Double Award Science which combines the study of Biology, Chemistry and Physics and results in receiving 2 GCSEs, whereas studying Triple Award Science delivers three separate GCSE’s. For those looking to enter the medical profession or other careers which involve a wide knowledge of the Sciences, it is important to make sure that your teenager is making the right course choice accordingly.

How do parents go about choosing the right subjects?

When helping your child select their GCSE options, it is important to look at a number of factors:

  • You need to look at your child’s general ability, track record in examinations and overall performance in a specific subject.  Success, general enjoyment and enthusiasm for the subject are strong indicators that a subject is a good choice.
  • Often a youngster’s enjoyment of a subject at this stage of their education will correlate directly with a teacher who has particularly inspired them. Make sure to enquire who will be teaching your child if they select this subject as an option if this is the case.
  • Is your child better at assessment through examinations or coursework? There has been a significant increase in coursework or controlled assessments in the past two years. These can be an advantage/disadvantage depending on your child. For example some subjects such as ICT, Music, Drama, Art, Design Technology, and PE have lots of practical work and controlled assessment pieces that account for over 40% of the available marks and which is very time consuming. These options will suit some students more than others.
  • The aim is to get a suitable mixture of subject choices to maintain breadth of study for as long as possible. Both employers and universities expect pupils to take a wide range of options including English Language, Mathematics, one Modern Language, The Sciences, the Humanities, as well as creative subject. It should be noted, however, that generally students wishing to apply to the most academic universities should not take more than one creative or practical subject.
  • Some GCSE exam boards are deemed ‘harder’ than others. Find out which exam boards the school offers in each of the subjects that your youngster in interested in studying and ask why the school has chosen this particular course within this subject.
  • Some schools insist on some subjects as compulsory such as Religious Education, albeit generally in short format, which requires no coursework.

The correct GCSE choices and good results at this stage are now critical for successful UCAS applications. For example, GCSE English is now generally a universal entry requirement for any course, with a ‘B’ grade or above being expected at the more academic universities. Mathematics is only slightly less commonly asked for and it is now often expected for students wanting to study subjects such as psychology, business and often the sciences to achieve at least a ‘B’ grade in Maths. Certain universities, such as University College London (UCL), increasingly require a good foreign language grade for some of the more academic arts courses.

It is important to note that a number of universities are asking that the results are achieved at one sitting. Some do not accept ‘re-sits’ at GCSE or standard level qualifications. It is also considered better to take fewer subjects all in once sitting at the end of year 11 and get higher grades. Oxford and Cambridge and a number of popular courses at Russell Group Universities now have entry requirements of 7A* GCSEs and often expect even more A*s!

Try to ensure your child feels ownership of the decision when choosing their subjects.  The results they obtain can really have an impact of the rest of their lives so real engagement in the process is critical.

In the light of the above, here is a checklist of questions for reference on GCSE options evening.

  • Which subjects are compulsory?
  • How are the option blocks put together for GCSE and is there any option to be flexible in making subject choices if necessary?
  • Are the GCSE classes taught in sets or mixed ability classes and which teacher will be taking each class/option block and hence your child?
  • Which GCSE syllabus does the school study in each of the subjects and why?
  • How much coursework, continual assessment and examination is there for each subject of choice?
  • Does your youngster have any idea of potential career direction and if yes, are there some subjects that their chosen higher education course and provider will require at GCSE level?
  • Is there an opportunity to change subject choices within the first term of year 10 if they are unhappy with their chosen courses after starting the academic year?
  • If Science is offered as 3 individual subjects Biology, Physics, Chemistry as well as single award and dual award science courses, make sure that your youngster chooses the right option so as not to narrow down their options later on.
  • If your school encourages pupils to sit some GCSE subjects at the end of year 10, ask the school how this will be viewed by the universities, who may be looking at results of exams which were all taken in one sitting.

Look at your final short-list of choices. Does it have breadth? Is there a creative/practical subject, a language and a humanity, in addition to English, Maths and Science?

Does your youngster appear enthusiastic about the subjects on the list? Enjoyment of a subject at this stage will lead to the best results.