Choosing GCSE Options: A Parent's Guide

11/06/2015 16:40 | Updated 16 June 2016

It might seem like no time at all since your child first set foot in secondary school and yet here they are in Year 9 having to select their GCSE options already. If it feels dauntingly grown-up and just plain old daunting, you can help them make the right choices with our guide.

What’s changed with GCSEs?

- There’s been a move away from modules towards exam assessment at the end of the two years for most subjects and less emphasis on coursework.

- Fewer subjects will be split into ‘foundation’ and ‘higher’ tiers (students taking the foundation tier were only able to achieve a grade C, whereas higher tier pupils were not limited).

- Within exams, there will be more longer form questions and essays, rather than those requiring short answers.

children gcse

When it comes to options, how much actual choice is there anyway? Aren’t some subjects compulsory?

Your child will have to take Maths, English (either literature and language separately, or as a single English GCSE) and a science. Beyond this individual schools might also have policies on other subjects that must be covered – often a modern foreign language, a second science, religious education or ICT.

Depending on how many subjects your child is allowed, or has been advised to take in total by their school, in reality they might only therefore be choosing two to five additional subjects.

How many subjects should they take?

The ‘right’ number will be influenced by ability and also their school’s policy – many have a recommended number of subjects or a limit. An academically-minded child destined for university might be wise to look at doing at least nine, possibly 10 GCSEs. A few will plump for as many as 12, but bear in mind this will result in a hefty workload, which in turn might lead to lower grades for all but the very brightest and motivated.

Some pupils will find eight plenty or might opt for fewer GCSEs and combine them with BTEC or other qualifications.

According to Glynis Kozma, a former teacher turned journalist and author of the book Secondary School: A Parent’s Guide, “It’s better to take fewer GCSE subjects and be assured of good grades A-C than take more and get D or lower. Many universities and colleges look for high GCSE grades so focus on that and lay the foundations for A levels, when grades are vitally important.”

How much should I influence my child’s options?

Whilst this is clearly about their future not yours, at this age they will inevitably still need guidance and input from you and their teachers. Schools will normally hold a GCSE options event during year 9 for parents and pupils.

If you’ve got your heart set on them pursing particular subjects or a set career, Katie Krais, Educational Consultant at Jaderberg Krais advises that foisting your own preferences on your son or daughter is unwise: “They need to be motivated and happy to study the subjects concerned. Discuss the options, their pros and cons and the long term influence of subjects, but in the end it should be their choice, supported by the school and you. If they study subjects they enjoy learning about, it makes such a difference.”

It’s also important to make sure your child’s choices aren’t unduly influenced by friends - of course it’s nice to be in the same class, but your child is going to be the one doing studying (and moaning to you if they realise it was a poor subject choice too late). Also,make sure they are not opting out of a subject purely because they don’t like their current teacher - they may well have a dynamic, inspirational teacher the following year.

If a student doesn’t take a particular subject at GCSE, can they still do it at A’level?

Sometimes but not always. With the likes of maths, the sciences and English, a GCSE in the same subject will be necessary, but with others, such as law, economics or business studies, it won’t be.

It’s worth encouraging your offspring to double check that a new subject at GCSE or A level is really of interest - it’s a riskier pick if they have not studied it at school before.

How can GCSE choices affect future education and career plans?

Glynis suggests students “start with what they want to do next - either at university, college or with an apprenticeship and work back.” If your son or daughter has got an idea of the course or career they’d like to pursue, look at requirements listed by universities for that subject. Do they mention specific GCSEs as a must, or A’ levels which they won’t be able to take if they don’t have a GCSE in the same subject?

At this age, few teenagers will have their future career mapped out and their ideas can change quickly regardless. Glynis advises not closing too many doors. Sticking to a decent mix of mainly traditional subjects will stand them in good stead.

Their school isn’t letting my child opt for a subject they are desperate to take, what can we do?

The teaching staff might well have a solid reason for this. It could be that they don’t feel the subject plays to your son or daughter’s strengths, that their mix of GCSEs isn’t balanced or there could be a timetable clash with lessons overlapping. Make an appointment and ask for more information and to discuss things.

In summary:

- Think about their future study or career plans: is there a subject they are sure they want to do at A-level or college that they need to continue with now at GCSE?

- Consider what they enjoy and are good at.

- Seek their teachers’ advice on which subjects will play to their strengths.

- Balance quality and quantity - too many GCSEs might mean lower grades.

- Focus on keeping options open for now rather than specialising.


Middle schoolers boost girls' confidence with mirrors

Also on HuffPost:

Suggest a correction