Choosing what GCSEs – or equivalent options – to take is often the first big decision a teenager will have to make. And there can be tears, tantrums and trauma in some households as D-day looms.
While it’s ultimately their choice, many teenagers will turn to their parents for advice, who in turn will want to support their children through the transition as painlessly as possible.
Helping a 13 year old make a decision that could affect their future is enough to bring our parental doubts firmly into focus. After all, not many of us will be able to remember in much detail how we did it when we were that age.
But school will provide all the information your son or daughter needs about the subjects on offer, which ones they have to take, timetables and the reforms that are being phased in over the next few years. And you can be there to help tease out the real reasons behind the choices about to be made.
Subjects: what they love, what they loathe and what they’re good at
An obvious place to start is whether or not your teenager likes a subject and it’s worth probing this one a little further. Choosing a subject because they enjoy it makes a lot of sense. After all, they’ll be immersing themselves in it for at least the next two years and are more likely to be motivated if they are skipping to class rather than dragging their feet.
But make sure the enjoyment of the subject is due to the content of the course and not because they like being with their friends, or because the teacher ‘is lovely’ or because the classroom overlooks the playing fields.
Of course enjoying a subject and being good at it don’t always go together. Excelling in an area can indicate the direction in which your son or daughter’s interests lie in terms of their future career. If they’re not inclined to choose it, is there an underlying reason? A teacher they don’t click with, perhaps, or is it something they have a talent for but just aren’t feeling inspired about where it might be going?
It’s worth grappling with these issues – a teacher may move on, or an out-of-school club might provide a different take on the subject and ignite a spark of interest. Or it might simply be that although they’re good at it, they just don’t really like it that much.
Set aside some time to sit down together and look at how the skills they’ll develop in a subject might relate to different careers. These might include communication, problem-solving or creative skills. There are some really good video case studies that can help with where a subject might lead listed at the end of this article.
Thinking ahead – career options
Most of us know from our own experience that the career dreams we have as children usually change as we grow older. The realities of working as a vet would go over the head of most five year olds, but by 13 or 14 some children will start to have an idea of the direction they might want to go in.
While nobody would expect their career path to be mapped out for a journey of no return from their early teenage years, it’s worth bearing in mind that the subjects chosen at this stage could have an impact on your son or daughter’s future career.
They might be able to pick up a subject dropped before Year 10 at a later point, but it’s a good idea to keep as many options open as possible at this stage.
In fact, now is the perfect opportunity to start researching the range of careers available – there are more out there than you are likely to be aware of – and to think about the opportunities that will be available to your child in a decade or two.
The number of jobs demanding technical skills is growing and a science or maths-based subject will allow for a broader choice of career in the future. And if your child sees the pound signs before anything else then it may be worth researching the jobs which pay well.
Typically, people who work in jobs based around science, technology, finance or maths tend to be the highest earners and research shows that it’s the girls who are more likely to risk limiting their careers by dropping STEM subjects such as science, technology and maths at an early stage.
Learning after 16
Just as it’s worth having a conversation about their career interests, it’s also a good idea to start exploring what your teenager’s next move might be after their GCSEs.
Good grades in maths and English – that’s A*-C grade or 5-9 in the new grading system – will keep all the doors open, but if your son or daughter is considering university, some degree courses will ask for specific A levels or level 3 qualification equivalents.
It’s worth bearing in mind that your child might not be able to take certain A levels unless they have the matching GCSE – so researching degree requirements early can help them to make the right choices.
There’s a great book called Heap’s Degree Course Offers that’s worth getting your hands on – try your school or public library.
An apprenticeship can be a good alternative to A levels or university and they’re much more widely accepted as a route into a job today. In fact, the government is allocating funds towards the creation of more, high-quality apprenticeships and there’s a wide range of jobs to choose from.
But don’t be fooled into thinking they’re an easy option – some apprenticeship vacancies can be quite competitive and employers will be looking for good grades alongside a good attitude.
Checklist for students
- Do as much research as you can
- If you have a career in mind, find out the subjects you’ll need to study to help you get in
- Don’t let friends influence your decision
- Give yourself plenty of time – don’t rush your decision
- Get advice from teachers or your school careers adviser
And whichever path your child ends up on, it’s worth remembering that your support alone will give them a better chance of achievement through their education and on to a brighter future.
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