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Choosing A levels - how do you help your child to know which subjects to pick?

PUBLISHED: 10:29 20 September 2019

“A level choices are actually driven by the GCSE choices upstream,” says Jerry White, deputy principal at City College, Norwich - which means that what a GCSE student studies now could inform their future career. Picture: Getty Images

"A level choices are actually driven by the GCSE choices upstream," says Jerry White, deputy principal at City College, Norwich - which means that what a GCSE student studies now could inform their future career. Picture: Getty Images

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September isn't just the start of a new term - it's a chance to think about the future too. How can you help your child to choose the right A level subjects for them?

A levels are just one of several options available to young people. Picture: Getty ImagesA levels are just one of several options available to young people. Picture: Getty Images

This September, many Year 11 pupils in schools across the region won't just be thinking about the term ahead.

They will be thinking about what happens next - A levels, BTEC, an apprenticeship? - and how their time in the classroom might inform their future career.

But for many, this process actually starts much earlier. "A level choices are actually driven by the GCSE choices upstream," says Jerry White, deputy principal at City College, Norwich, and Paston College in North Walsham. The two sites have around 700 pupils in total, and approximately 450 enrolled on A level courses.

"80pc of subjects studied at A level have a direct feeder from a school GCSE subject," says Jerry, and while arts subjects, along with politics and economics are more fluid, some subjects, such as chemistry, will usually require a GCSE in the same subject.

What a young person studies at GCSE may inform what they study at A level. Picture: Getty ImagesWhat a young person studies at GCSE may inform what they study at A level. Picture: Getty Images

But some subjects, such as design and technology, have little take-up at all - something which Jerry suggests is concerning in the current 
climate. "Engineering and construction are popular sectors in our area, as well as nationally, but design and technology subjects have seen a drop (around 51.3pc) at GCSE level.

"In some areas of the curriculum there is a real disconnect between what the schools offer and what the needs are, regionally, because while construction is a real priority for our region, it's quite a jump if a student has never done a similar subject, or never designed anything - where are they going to come up from?"

But when it comes to individuals choosing the subjects they want to pursue, flexibility is key.

"It's all about understanding our students' end goal," continues Jerry. "A levels are not the only route to where they want to go - there are other ways of getting them to the same destination - and unfortunately, A levels continue to dominate the agenda when a majority don't do them.

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"Our obligation is to provide impartial advice and guidance and be honest about expectations. We will spend a lot of time going through all the options with individual students and focus on the progress the individual makes - not the high grades of the cohort."

In recent years, arts and humanities subjects - including English, history, drama and modern foreign languages such as French and German - have been in sharp decline according to figures from FFT Education Datalab.

In contrast, subjects such as the sciences (comprising biology, chemistry and physics), business and politics have become more popular and demand for computer science has risen enormously, at an increase of 106.7pc over the last five years.

Some experts believe that this shift is partly because of the English Baccalaureate, a performance measure introduced by the Department of Education in 2010, which steers students towards what the government believes are 'important' subjects - such as English, maths, sciences and computer science - rather than more arts-based subjects. If these are the subjects students are encouraged to take at GCSE, they are also more likely to pursue them at A level.

But Craig Hooper, assistant head of sixth form at Norwich School, based at Cathedral Close in the city, reports more of a mixture. "Our most popular A levels are maths and the three sciences, closely followed by history, economics, politics, English and geography," he says.

"But we also have large numbers of talented pupils studying creative subjects, including graphics, photography, 3D design and fine art. In a world where modern foreign language departments are being cut, we also offer French, German and Spanish at A level."

At Norwich school, A level choices are formally introduced to Year 11 pupils in October, with the choices formalised the following January, after mock exams - but, Craig says, the conversation really does begin earlier.

"Our annual Careers Networking Event, at the Open venue in Norwich, takes place in March and is well attended by pupils and their parents in Years 9-13. We have well-established links with local businesses and professions who give up their evening to offer guidance to our pupils and those from other Norfolk schools," he says.

If you are a parent with a teenager considering their next steps, it can be difficult to work out how best to advise. "Being a good listener and responding positively to the aspirations of young people are key tasks for a parent/guardian," says Craig. "Lots of parents take an active role in supporting their children when making these crucial decisions, attending school open evenings and talking to the staff about their subjects.

"Family members and friends sharing their experiences can be really useful but it's also important to remember that the world of education and employment has changed quite a bit since many parents were at school.

"Work experience or volunteering is also something that can be really helpful to a young person when trying to decide what they might want, or not want, to do in the future. It is very helpful if parents can help young people to organise something."

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