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The Parents’ Guide to supporting your child choose their A Levels


Michael Gray, Headmaster - Hereford Cathedral School

@HerefordCS @HCSHead

Many young people find it very difficult choosing their A Levels as they move from around nine to ten GCSEs to just three or four subjects. The choices that are made at the age of 16 can have a very significant impact on future educational and employment options and therefore making informed decisions is paramount. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that each child is unique and a one size fits all approach should certainly be avoided.

Nevertheless, there are some guiding principles which if followed, should enable every young person to make the decisions which are right for them, even if they don’t have any idea as to the career path that they may wish to pursue.

1. Students should study the subjects that they enjoy

The number of teaching hours per subject increases significantly in the Sixth Form and so does the volume of work. It is unlikely that a student will achieve their potential in a subject which doesn’t excite or inspire them. They will find it hard to stay sufficiently motivated in order to go the extra mile in their studies and to revise as thoroughly as they ought if they do not find the material to be of genuine interest.

Students should study the subjects that they enjoy

Your teen should look at the course content for each A Level to see if the material is something that they think they will relish studying. Many subjects are very different in the Sixth Form and just because someone enjoyed studying the two World Wars in History GCSE for example, it doesn’t automatically mean that they will find a study of Charlemagne or Alfred the Great to be equally engaging. Similarly, there are often many new subjects on offer in the Sixth Form and your teen should make sure that they know what these courses are really like and whether or not they think they would enjoy them. Economics A Level, for example, is about economic theories and not about how to get rich on the stock market as some young people sometimes think, while Politics A Level is more about legislative processes than it is about debating the latest policies coming out of Westminster. Students need to know what they enjoy and that the course to which they are signing up is the same as what they actually think it is.

2. Students should study the subjects at which they excel

It is typically the case, of course, that we enjoy the things at which we excel and we excel in the things that we enjoy. Consequently, this should help young people with their choices. Using data from school reports and acquiring honest feedback from teachers should enable your teen to know whether they would make a strong candidate in the subject at A Level. Most students are well-placed to evaluate their relative strengths and weaknesses but sometimes they are not. There are occasions when a young person may feel they are better at a subject than they actually are and conversely, that they are less able in the discipline than is actually the case. GCSE outcomes provide objective data and should be used to confirm or challenge the final subject choices that are made. While it is important one is not too reactionary, it may be prudent to adjust A Level choices in light of GCSE outcomes as appropriate.

The leap from GCSE to A Level Mathematics, for example, is a significant one, and without at least a grade 7 at GCSE, it is unlikely that a student will achieve much higher than a B or a C grade at A-Level. It is far better for a student to be applying to the next stage of their education or employment with three or four top grades at A Level because they selected subjects in which they excelled than to apply with weaker outcomes because they made poorly-informed decisions which didn’t play to their strengths. A Level subjects need to be accessible to the student studying it.

Students should study the subjects at which they excel

3. Students should study subjects which keep their options open

Quite understandably, most teenagers do not know what they want to do as a career. In any case, this generation will likely have many different jobs, including in sectors which do not currently exist or which will look very different from today. Even those who do have their eyes set on a specific path such as law, finance, medicine, or the creative arts, may find that their thoughts and views change over time. The UK educational system does require specialisation at a very young age and by definition, the choosing of one path means that the alternative routes are not travelled.

Study subjects which keep their options open

It is especially important therefore, that students try to keep their options open – so far as is possible and practicable – by the subjects that they choose. It also means that students need to know what doors they will be closing as a result of their subject choices. For example, the absence of an A Level in Mathematics will likely close the door on a degree in Computer Science, in Economics, and in Engineering while the absence of Chemistry and Biology is likely to be prohibitively detrimental to a degree in Medicine, Dentistry or Pharmacology.

There are also lots of misconceptions around subject choice and it is often the case that degrees don’t need or even want that exact subject at A Level. For example, most universities would much prefer that those applying for Law had A Levels in subjects such as History or English rather than in Law itself or Criminology. Similarly, there is absolutely no requirement to have studied subjects such as Sociology, Psychology, History of Art, or Politics at A Level in order to read the subject at university.

4. Students should make decisions based on information and not influence

It is not uncommon for students to choose their A Levels based on the wrong reasons. Selecting a subject because one’s best friend is opting for it is not a good enough reason. Neither is it very satisfactory to choose a particular A Level subject because one simply likes the teacher, although there may be merit in selecting a subject because one finds the pedagogic approach of a specific practitioner to be particular helpful. At the same time, it is important to remember that individual teachers come and go, and there might be no guarantee that one will even be allocated that individual in the timetable. Young people must also bear in mind that all teachers are going to want hard-working, polite, and intellectually curious pupils to choose their subject at A Level and therefore have something of a vested interest to encourage the uptake of their discipline.

Somewhat contentiously – and most schools will probably advise against this – there can be merit in looking at the historical outcomes of each subject within one’s institution. Does the Chemistry Department, for example, consistently get a higher percentage of A* grades than the Biology Department with a comparable cohort or vice versa? These data can be especially helpful in making informed choices when one is deciding between two or more subjects in which one has equal levels of enjoyment and aptitude. Looking at recent trends can be informative and fine margins might make the difference between meeting the terms of a university offer or not.

Students should make decisions based on information

At the same time, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and context is usually everything. In small cohort subjects, the modest sample size can be misleading and prevent accurate conclusions. Moreover, a subject may appear to underperform relative to the School average in terms of headline percentages but it may also have had a cohort which was below the School average and have actually delivered better value-added than a department which had a more able group of pupils. It can be helpful to encourage young people to ask the pupils already studying those subjects in the Sixth Form about their experiences and to get their insights on the course in question.

And finally…

While A Level subject choices really do matter, of course, it is rare that a decision will close a door irrevocably. There are, for example, eighteen medical schools which offer graduate entry Medicine, with ten of these accepting non-science degrees, although entry is even more competitive than for undergraduate Medicine.

Equally illustrative is the fact that many people who enter the legal profession do so via a law conversion course rather than a traditional law degree, while exceptionally, it is now even possible to do an Engineering degree without A Levels in either Mathematics or Physics. I am often struck when talking to friends and contacts across such a wide range of sectors how their journeys have all been different, and while some have trodden a traditional career path, many others have arrived at their destination through an unconventional or circuitous route. Ultimately, the aim is for every young person to make decisions which will enable them to live purposeful, fulfilling and meaningful lives, both now and in the future.

Planning for next steps

What your teen does after GCSE and sixth form is both exciting and daunting. Feel confident chatting to them about their future options with our overview of everything that's available to them in: The Parent’s Guide to Post 16 options and The Parents' Guide to Post 18 options.


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