What Should You Do If Your Son Or Daughter Doesn't Get The GCSE Marks They Wanted?

What Should You Do If Your Son Or Daughter Doesn't Get The GCSE Marks They Wanted?
Chris Radburn/PA Wire

If there is one day guaranteed to punctuate the calm of summer it's likely to be this Thursday - the 24th August when youngsters get their GCSE results. If your child gets the grades they want, you can relax; their path to sixth-form or college is assured. But what should you do if your child hasn't done as well as expected?

The first thing to do is to get your son or daughter to contact the sixth form or college they had hoped to attend. It's tempting for parents to do this on behalf of their demoralised children. But don't - it's a mistake. Admissions tutors are much more likely to be impressed if a student takes the initiative and contacts them directly. It shows maturity, it's authentic and it's practical - a student can decide immediately if the college proposes an alternative course without a parent having to relay any revised offer to them.

You may be naturally tempted to appeal a poor GCSE result. This is an option but in most cases the school would have to agree to lodge an appeal, it takes up to 30 days, and the chances of success have declined markedly since the appeals system was overhauled last year. In short, it's an outside bet but it's no substitute for a plan.

Remember, too, that schools and colleges will want to help - they have places to fill and they won't be reimbursed if they remain unfilled. Yes, they won't want to take students who they think will struggle, but if there is a solution they will be keen to help your child find it.

That means your child (and you) has to be prepared to be flexible. They may have to accept places on less popular courses, for instance. But as long as they are what the universities call 'facilitating subjects' (English, maths, the sciences, history, geography, languages) it shouldn't affect their future plans. Students don't have to take psychology, economics or law at A level, for instance, to study those disciplines at university. Most university courses, with the exception of medicine and the hard sciences, do not demand specific subject A levels.

How flexible schools and colleges are prepared to be depends on which GCSEs a student failed to pass and by how much. English and maths are essential, so if your child didn't pass them, or failed to get a sufficiently high grade, they should re-sit them in November. Many schools and colleges will allow students to start A levels in other subjects while they re-sit English and maths, it depends on the subject mix. But it's worth asking before looking elsewhere.

If your child has done considerably worse at GCSEs than expected, a more drastic rethink may be necessary. Some may be tempted to retake the entire year, though for most that won't be affordable or practical. Another solution is to opt for a Btec rather than an A level. These are primarily vocational qualifications but they are valid alternatives to A levels and accepted as such by most universities. Some colleges also offer three-year post-GCSE courses, and these too are worth considering if a student needs more time to prepare for university.

An added complication this year is that English and maths GCSEs will be graded differently, with a one to nine number scale replacing the old A-G system. One is the lowest grade and nine the highest, with a standard pass set by the government at four. Colleges that stipulated a C last year as the minimum entry requirement should accept a grade four this year.

It's likely that this change will lead to a great deal of confusion, not least because the old letters do not translate easily into the new numbers. Very, very few students will get a nine, for instance. Only six students in an average school are expected to achieve the top mark in a single subject. Indeed, a little more than a third of students are expected to get a grade five or above. So if your child gets a grade seven or better they have done incredibly well.

If your child find themselves in the fortunate position of doing better than expected they shouldn't necessarily stick to their plans - they could use their good grades to barter up to a more popular course or college. But it's also important not to take on too much. Three A levels are sufficient; students don't need to study four.

Students who want to gain additional points for university admission should do an Extended Project Qualification, which is essentially an extended research project. It can be done on any topic, as long as the school agrees, and doesn't have to be linked to a student's chosen A levels. Crucially, it counts for 50% of an A-level, compared to 40% for an AS level, and universities love them - because they teach students to study in an independent, university-minded way.

My last piece of advice is the one most parents instinctively know and don't need to be told - don't despair. Even if your child did far worse than expected, there are always solutions; there are always options. As adults know but most 16-year-olds don't, learning from failure is one of the best routes to success.

Danuta Tomasz is assistant director of education, Europe for Cognita, which has some 70 schools in the UK and abroad.