Choosing the Right Subjects at GCSE and A Level - 'Choices are the hinges of destiny'

01/02/2013 11:49 | Updated 02 April 2013
  • Paul Dyson Head of Sixth Form at Akeley Wood School

As the Head of Sixth Form at Akeley Wood School, which is part of the Cognita group, one of my key roles is to ensure that pupils are making the right GCSE and A Level subject choices.

How to choose the right GCSE subjects

Depending on your school's priorities, and what the government of the day deems mandatory at national curriculum KS4, you will find certain core subjects are compulsory and have been chosen for you! Currently, every child must study maths, English, science, ICT, PE and citizenship, but this list may be reduced to just maths, English, science and PE in the future.

But what about all those other subjects on offer -how do you decide what is right for you?

The key to GCSE selection is breadth. You are likely to be allowed to choose from anywhere between five and twelve subjects, and the broad scope on offer is designed to expand your knowledge and skills in many different fields. Think of GCSEs as keys to open doors: the greater the number and breadth of subjects studied, the more doors will open for you in terms of career, vocation or Higher Education opportunities.

A key factor when choosing GCSEs must be your future plans in life. The majority of students taking GCSEs now go on to take A levels, and in most schools you will usually need to have studied a subject at GCSE before studying it at A level, e.g. maths and science (physics, chemistry, biology), DT, foreign languages, geography and history. For many other A levels, e.g. music, ICT and PE, it may be that it is preferred that you have a GCSE in the subject, but it may not be compulsory; finally, for other subjects, e.g. economics, philosophy or business studies, there is no specific GCSE requirement-it really does depend on your school's policy. If you intend to leave school at 16, then you are less constrained in your choice, but still need to think about which subjects might make you more employable in your chosen field (e.g. practical/skills-based, or more analytical).

It is worth remembering that all GCSEs (and A levels) are carefully controlled by the Standards and Testing Agency. This means, in theory, all subjects should represent a similar level of academic challenge, be assessed using the same criteria, and develop comparable skills. However, to gain a place on a post-graduate course to become a qualified teacher, for example, you must have English and mathematics at a C or above; to study medicine you should have A* or A grades in all three sciences, mathematics and English; Admission to Oxbridge relies on all A* or A grades at GCSE (as well as many other factors).

Talk to your teachers, parents, older brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles -anyone who has been through the system or who has relevant work experience. Find out what skills and subjects are best suited to your planned career, and research what the specification actually entails: PE students may be surprised to find they spend much more time learning about physiology and anatomy than they do playing football!

How to choose the right A level subjects

If GCSEs encourages breadth, then A levels focus on depth. Nearly all A level students intend to progress into Higher Education, and A levels are still the gold standard for most universities (despite the growth in the Cambridge Pre U and the International Baccalaureate). Reading for a degree requires in-depth study, so A levels must equip students accordingly.

This means just three or four A levels are chosen by most students (universities typically make offers based on three A levels or their corresponding UCAS points tariff) and each subject is studied in far greater depth than at GCSE. To put it another way, depending on your school timetable, you will typically spend around six to seven hours in the classroom each week for each A level. You obviously need to choose subjects you actually enjoy!

With more at stake in any one subject than at GCSE, thorough research becomes even more important. Visit the exam boards' web sites and familiarise yourself with the content of your likely subjects; discuss the differences between GCSE and A level with sixth formers and all relevant subject teachers. A word on the latter: teachers move schools, so don't base your choices on teachers you like!

Many single honours degree courses (where just the one subject is studied) will require previous study of the subject at A level, e.g. maths, science, English, history and geography. You must take this into account when choosing your A levels -it is usually too late to make a successful change by midway through Year 12. Maths and/or the sciences are required at A level for many degree courses, including medicine, engineering, veterinary science and most courses involving economics or finance. In contrast, law and business/management courses usually have no specific subject requirement at A level. If in doubt, a quick search on the UCAS Course Search website will give you all the information you need on entry requirements for every subject and institution.

Your A level choices should usually support each other and develop the skills and knowledge required at degree level. You will have to write a personal statement as part of your university application, and in it you will need to explain the relevancy of your A levels for your chosen degree course. Of course, it is perfectly fine (arguably advantageous, even) for a would-be medic to have studied economics (develops business acumen and global perspective) provided chemistry and biology are up to scratch!

An important consideration should be the workload and the method of assessment for each subject choice. Read carefully through the specification of each subject you are considering to check how it is assessed. How much coursework is there? How many tests/exams are there? Are there any practical assessments? It's probably wise not to take three subjects where the main bulk of assessment is coursework, but equally wise to avoid choosing three subjects where most of the assessment rests purely on exams at the end of the year. If possible, try to balance your subject combinations so your work will be spread over equal amounts of coursework, exams and practical tests.
"Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses." (Marilyn vos Savant). In other words, play to your known strengths and stick to what you are good at. For example, if you excel at creative writing, then an English Language A level would be a better option than English Literature. Be aspirational but realistic at the same time, otherwise you could be saddled with subjects you simply cannot cope with in order to pursue a career you are not suited to!

Finally, there is growing concern among some educationalists that certain A level subjects are 'soft' and do not stretch or prepare students for Higher Education as well as more traditional 'hard' subjects. Cambridge University and LSE have even published lists of their 'non-preferred' subjects, which include accounting, art and design, business studies, design and technology, drama, theatre studies, home economics, ICT and media studies. Whether other universities or employers adopt a similar attitude to so-called soft subjects remains to be seen, but high-achievers targeting Oxbridge and Russell Group universities need perhaps to be a little cautious.

"Life is the sum of all your choices." (Albert Camus); so choose wisely and good luck!