Helping Your Child Make Their GCSE Choices



Your child is born, he takes his first steps – and before you know it, he's heading into year nine of secondary school and choosing his GCSE options.

Yet this is just the next bit of the roller coaster ride we know as Bringing Up Children – the question is how you can help them make the right choices, subjects they will enjoy but ones which will help a future career, not box them in too early?

Tom Cahill is head teacher of Richard Challoner School, a successful and over-subscribed secondary school for boys in Surrey. He is absolute on his advice to parents – especially parents of students who do not yet have any idea of what career(s) they may eventually follow.

"My advice is always choose a broad range of subjects to keep your options as wide as possible," he says. "Hence at Challoner we think a varied curriculum at key stage 4 is best. Therefore pupils have to take English (literature and language), Maths, two sciences, Design Technology (the school has a technology specialism), a modern foreign language and Religious Education. After that they are free to choose from a wide range of additional subjects (including music, art, PE, drama to name but a few) up to around 11." *

Wise words – but with changes afoot in the exam world, prompted by unrelenting talk that GCSEs and AS/A levels are getting easier and with nobody sure where this new Coalition Government will take education, how can you be sure the choices you make for your child now will be a help in the long run?

"Well of course you can't," says mum of three Carmel Parsons, whose son Harry, 15, has just gone into year 11, and is embarking on his second year of GCSE study . "Initially Harry wanted to be a vet, but after his first year's studying and seeing how he did in his exams – and how much revision is required - he is leaning towards pursuing his other great love, which is sport."

Carmel (and Harry) are therefore grateful that the careers advice he received from school was sound. "We were advised to keep his options open," says Carmel. "I had been pushing Harry along the route of taking a GCSE in business studies, which I thought would be a good all-rounder. However his careers advisor at school suggested history would be a better academic subject to take. She said universities have signalled they will start to look at a pupil's GCSE choices, not just their AS and A levels, and that history is a subject Harry already enjoyed. Luckily he also chose sports studies – so we feel so far we've had good advice and been able to guide our son in a helpful direction."

It seems then that the one piece of golden advice parents should take away is not to narrow down your child's options at 13 – which would seem pretty sensible after all.

Maggie O'Donnell, mum to two grown-up children, would agree. Whilst her son knew from an early age he wanted to be a civil engineer (and is) her daughter, who graduated this year, has just secured a marketing job with a prominent medical research charity. However, leaving university this summer, she was still not sure what she wanted to do.

"At the end of the day, the best advice I can think of is to say to your children to work hard in all their subjects," says Maggie. "Very few of us are lucky enough at 13 to really have a feeling for what we want to do later in life. So I would say with the optional GCSEs you can choose, go for the ones they really love and will excel at. It seems pretty obvious – but you'd be surprised at the children who don't do that."

For more advice on what GCSE options to choose visit

  • In Wales children also choose their options in year nine – the only major difference being students here must study Welsh. After the compulsory subjects are accounted for, children are free to choose from what's called a local curriculum, which will contain a wide range of options, both general and vocational. There is more information here.
  • In Scotland the system is different. Students study for qualifications known as Standard Grades, which they sit at the end of their fourth year of secondary education. They sit somewhere between five and eight standard grades, however the compulsory grades are set by councils and schools (not the government) but generally include core subjects such as English and maths. More information here.

What advice would you give parents and teens making decisions on GCSEs?

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