GCSE choices: Practical ways to guide students

Advising Year 9s on GCSE options? Use our advice to make sure their choices are suited to their learning style and ability, and fit in with their future aspirations.

In most schools, timetabling for the whole school is heavily influenced by the options students choose for GCSE, so you need to know everyone's choices as soon as possible.

If your school is maintaining a traditional approach of GCSEs being taught across Years 10 and 11 then, by late January of Year 9, options need to be sorted.

Developing your timeline

In planning your timeline, use the date when the options need to be finalised by and work back from there to fit in the key advice activities and events. This should include the following elements:

  • Information event for parents: To set out the choices, why some subjects are compulsory, which are options and the impact of choices on future plans.
  • Tutorials on how to make choices: So all students are engaged in the process, recognising how important it is that they make sensible and well-considered choices.
  • Information booklet: To summarise the choices, provide details of the content of each subject and the way each is taught and assessed. Mention the Informed Choices guidance so parents are aware of the possible impact of choices on future university entry.

Activities to help students understand key issues

  • Making decisions: Develop an activity around how students make decisions. Whose advice do they respect? What independent decisions have they made already? What strategies can they use to examine the pros and cons of their choices?
  • Learning styles: Examine, using some of the subjects they will have as options, the type of learning involved. For example, look at how the skills required in history are significantly different to those required in art or design and technology.
  • Peer advisers: Hold a GCSE choices fair at which current GCSE students can share their experience with those about to choose subjects.
  • Researching future plans: Show students where they can find accurate and impartial information about the impact of GCSEs on future choices at A level and undergraduate level. 

Essential advice about choosing GCSEs

1. Enjoyment: Choose subjects you think you will enjoy. This means researching content closely and asking teachers and others who know you well for advice.

2. Aptitude: Choose subjects which you think you will be good at - you will be more likely to enjoy them as well. Think about why you might enjoy particular subjects and how committed you feel – e.g. drama: have you enjoyed performing previously? Do you like working collaboratively? Are you committed enough to rehearse for GCSE performance work in the evenings and maybe at weekends?

3. Prospects: Think seriously about future ambitions. If you already have a university course in mind, check entry requirements for specific courses at university and work back from there.

4. Balance: If you have no idea what you want to do in the future make sure that your options provide a broad and balanced programme.

5. Independence: Don’t choose on the basis of what friends are doing or on the basis of favourite teachers. Make your own decisions.

Alternatives to GCSE

Some schools offer a range of alternative qualifications – most commonly BTECs. If your school or college does, you need to ensure you know the facts about these alternatives:

  • Often doing a BTEC or other vocational or tech qualification will be to the advantage of a student - providing a more practical, career-sector related qualification. Usually, such a choice should not adversely affect most future choices.
  • However, be aware that some universities and courses will not accept BTECs in lieu of GCSEs.
  • Bear in mind the general guidance for all students is to have a broad and balanced curriculum. Check whether a BTEC is limiting future choices for any student.

Preparing for GCSEs

Once students have made their choices, your responsibility is to make sure they are well prepared for GCSE level study. Subject teachers should be developing GCSE level skills and approaches well before Year 10. In subjects and tutorial work, build in discussion on:

  • managing workload
  • organising work and notes for future revision — remember these are linear courses
  • revision skills
  • dealing with problems – make sure students understand the need to check their learning after each lesson, and to ask if they are uncertain
  • how GCSEs are assessed and marked