What are your child's options after GCSEs?

teenage boy in science lab completing school experiment GCSEs

All 16 year olds must undertake further education until they are 18. This doesn’t mean they have to stay on at school or go to college, they can get a job with a training element to it, but they cannot work full-time without some training. Their options are to take academic qualifications, such as A levels, BTECs, IB or T Levels or take vocational qualifications, such as an apprenticeship or job with training. If they’ve struggled to get good results at GCSE, they can do an internship or traineeships to get the experience to progress. If your child thinks they know what they want to do when they leave school at 18, this may influence their choices. For example, someone who hopes to train as a dentist will need to take the sciences at sixth form.

However, in most cases, they won’t have a firm idea of what they want to do (and may not even know whether they hope to progress to further education once they're 18). In such instances, it may be a good idea for your child to make choices which give them some experience in lots of areas so they can find out more about what they do like rather than limiting their options by taking similar subjects. Another driver in choosing what to study at sixth form will be the way in which they prefer to learn. Those who like course-work and prefer “doing” will enjoy taking BTecs, T Levels or apprenticeships. Students that prefer listening and exams will enjoy the traditional A level or IB approach.

Group of secondary school students sitting on stairs of the entrance to school chatting
What are your child's options at 15/16?

Helping your child choose what to study after their GCSEs:

For some children the decision on what to study after their GCSEs will be fairly straightforward. For others, narrowing their subject choices may prove trickier. If your child needs some extra guidance on what to do after their GCSEs, it's important to consider the following:

What your child is good at and enjoys

Almost all of us tend to be better at things we enjoy than things we don’t. If your child has a natural passion for certain subjects, they will likely make good sixth form choices. dditionally, your child will need to spend a lot of time on each sixth form option they select, so it’s a good idea that they have an interest in the subjects they study. GCSE results can be a good indicator of their aptitude, but if they have not already studied the subjects at GCSE, speak to their teacher to get advice on whether they appear to have potential for success at sixth form. Also, consider whether your child excels in practical studies or theoretical studies. This can be a big influencer in subject choices.

What your child wants to do next

If your child knows what profession they want to work towards, or which subject they want to read at university, their sixth form subject choices may be more obvious. For example, to study pharmacy they must take a sixth form qualification (such as A Level or IB) in chemistry and at least one from biology, physics or maths; or if they want to take a degree in engineering, they will likely require Maths. Where conflict can appear is if they have their heart set on a career choice but little aptitude for the subjects needed to progress towards it. That’s where vocational courses can be helpful. Someone that wants to go into business could avoid a maths-heavy Economics A level and choose to take a BTEC in Business Studies instead. Alternatively, they may choose to start an apprenticeship in an industry area they are interested in (such as hotels and leisure).

Two students in classroom studying for a maths A level exam

University preferences

Different universities have different entry requirements, so it is important to check the university’s website for details if your child has a particular university or degree course in mind. Subject combinations, types of qualification and subject grades needed for entry not only vary from university to university, but may also differ within the same university for different degrees. If in doubt, call the university and speak to admissions. Not all sixth form qualifications are considered equal by top universities. Some do not accept BTEC and others consider certain A levels more weighty than others. To maximise the universities open to your child, it’s a good idea for them to take a mix of commonly approved subjects (“facilitating subjects”) such as biology, chemistry, English, geography, history, maths, modern/classical languages or physics. These are recommended by Russell Group universities (17 British research universities). Be careful not to take subjects which are too similar, as certain universities will not accept certain subject combinations (such as business studies and economics). If your child is not sure what they want to study after sixth form, don’t worry too much about subject combinations. It’s far better for them to achieve good grades and widen their university options, than sit “winning” subject combinations but fail their examinations and not meet universities’ minimum entry standards.

Helping your child choose where to study after their GCSEs:

The 16-18 age range is a very important time for a teenager because it marks the transition from child to adult. If they are going to continue with full time education (rather than joining the workplace through an apprenticeship, traineeship, internship or voluntary role), where they study is an important consideration. It may seem an easy decision to continue studies at their current school; however, this is not always the best option and is sometimes not possible. Some schools aren’t offering the subject or qualification choices your child wants to study, some schools don’t have a sixth form, some schools have a joint sixth form (which your child may not like) and some students are just desperate to leave the school environment. It is important that your thoughts and feelings are taken into consideration when making the decision about “what next”, but remember, the choice should ultimately be your child’s.

Continuing at the same school

There are lots of benefits to this for your child: they know the staff, they will have friends there and they are familiar with journey times and routes. It’s also nice for them to be role models to younger pupils and this, combined with the familiar environment, can help build self-confidence. In most cases, sixth forms are smaller than colleges and provide more support. For students with special educational needs, they know what support is provided and whether their needs are met (support can vary widely from one institution to another). However, because they are smaller, they are unlikely to have as many subject choices or vocational courses as colleges and they need to watch out about becoming complacent by being the “big fish in a small pond”.

Applying to sixth form in another school

Providing the school is offering the right subject and course options for your child, this can be a good compromise between staying at the same school or going to college. The challenge of meeting new teachers, new friends and working in a different atmosphere with a different daily journey still exists, but the smaller numbers, greater guidance and nurturing environment also applies. It can prove a good way for your child to start to take control of their own lives, increase confidence and improve communications without everything changing at once. Depending on GCSE results, changing schools can provide the opportunity of going to a more academic school or one that has greater focus on co-curricular interests that may provide job opportunities in the future (such as rowing, music, drama etc). A fresh environment can inspire fresh ideas.

Male teenage student walking on school grounds with mobile phone in hand
Female college student

Going to college

The great thing about colleges is that that they have a huge range of academic and vocational courses to study, so there will be plenty of choice. Also, all their focus is on the 16-19 age-range so all facilities and additional offerings are aimed at the same age group, unlike schools who are caring for children of many different ages, sometimes as young as early years. Teachers and lecturers will all be experts in their specialist subjects for this age range. Colleges tend to be larger and less personal than school sixth forms; the experience is much closer to life at university. This is ideal for students who are disciplined at managing their own studies and can meet deadlines on their own, but students that need nudging, coaxing and reminding are less likely to do well. Of course, learning these skills is important regardless of whether they want to go onto university or start work after sixth form, but some sixteen year olds need a little more guidance than others. The question is whether your child will do well with new teachers to get to know, a new environment and, in most cases, a whole new set of friends to make. If they like the challenge of stretching beyond their comfort-zone, it can be a great stepping stone from school to university but if they are reserved, it could be over-whelming.

Independent learning providers

It doesn’t have to be a choice of school or college. There are independent organisations that offer entry level courses and employability training for young people who want to get a qualification or learn the skills to help find a job.

Vocational learning

If they are taking vocational learning, such as an apprenticeship, the learning location will be chosen by their employer, who will have an arrangement with a local school, college or other education provider. They will not be able to influence this.

Find out more

If you’d like to know more about your child’s options at 16 and things you should help them consider when making decisions about their next steps, read our specialist guide: The Parent’s Guide to Post 16 options.

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