How to Choose Your I/GCSEs and A Levels

Choosing your I/GCSEs is a coming-of-age milestone for students but how do you know you’re making the right decision? Here is some advice and guidance from some of Singapore's leading schools.
How to Choose Your I/GCSEs and A Levels
By Carli Allan
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You’re in Year 9 and you’ve reached an important crossroads in your education. For the first time, you have the opportunity to choose the subjects that you want to study as you take those initial steps towards your I/GCSE exams in Year 11.

Choosing GCSEs feels serious – and it’s natural to feel nervous. Now that you’re 13 or so, you may know what you’d like to do by way of a job in later life. Or, you may have no idea at all and still feel undecided about what to study at university (or even if you want to apply). Both of these situations are normal. While it is important which subjects you study, your life is not mapped out from this day. But with the deadline looming for choosing GCSE subjects – most UK curriculum schools ask students to select their GCSE options by the spring term – it’s time to start making some big decisions.

Fast forward two years and you will be in the same situation all over again – this time choosing your A Level subjects. You’re likely to have a clearer idea aged 16 of what you like, what you’re good at, and what you want to be. But that doesn’t make it any less challenging. It is the final hurdle in your journey towards a university place or that first job so, as many college students will tell you, it feels just as overwhelming.

How do I make the right choices for my GCSEs?

There is not one simple, easy answer but it does help to keep your options broad and balanced. To help you do this, it really helps to find a school that can offer you a wide choice of subjects. Some schools may have limitations on GCSE subjects (more obscure or vocational subjects, such as law and electronics, are less likely to be offered at smaller schools, for example), and there is no guarantee that students will be allocated all their preferred subjects due to potential timetable clashes. However, many international schools in Singapore can (and do) offer more than 12 different subjects; having the specialist teachers and facilities, as well as smaller class sizes, really helps.

Robert Randall, deputy headteacher of the senior school at Tanglin Trust School says:

“At Tanglin we believe students should have a choice and those choices should provide them with an opportunity to choose subjects which they enjoy, are good at, haven’t studied before or are those which support a future career path such as medicine. To support these values, we offer a broad range of GCSEs and both the IB Diploma Programme and A Levels in the Sixth Form.”

You’ll also find that most schools in Singapore will offer IGCSEs (the international equivalent) as an option in certain subjects; these are considered by some to better prepare students for A Levels (or the IB Diploma Programme) as they have more challenging content and less assessed coursework. There are more than 30 international schools in Singapore offering GCSEs and/or IGCSEs.

Most schools teach I/GCSEs in Years 10-11, so you will need to choose your options in Year 9. At Dulwich College (Singapore), students study their IGCSEs over a three-year period, rather than the traditional two, from Year 9; this is a year earlier than most UK schools. From Years 9 to 11, all students study maths, English literature, English language, physics, chemistry and biology, and have a choice of four other subjects.

The College says that the extra year for IGCSEs, “allows for the development of core skills across the curriculum that will allow our students to learn to the best of their ability, while leaving time for important enrichment activities to be integrated into the learning experience”.

GCSE students at Tanglin Trust School

What subjects can I study at GCSE?

In reality, when choosing GCSEs, there are big restrictions on the amount of choice you actually have. English (English Literature and English Language or a single English GCSE), maths, and science (combined, double or triple) are all compulsory subjects, and in most schools you also need to take a modern language, humanities (history or geography), and an arts or technical subject. Whichever science or English GCSE you take, you’ll cover the same subjects, but there is a difference in the depth of study and the number of individual GCSE qualifications you come away with.

That still leaves you the freedom of as many as three subjects. In recent years, we’ve seen the introduction of newer subjects such as computer science, and practical subjects such as design & technology. Schools may also introduce subjects that have not previously been taught as part of the curriculum, such as psychology, business, and film studies. At UWC South East Asia (Dover), for example, students can study subjects including product design, dance or photography; at DPS International School, options include Tamil, Hindi, environmental management and accounting.

At this point, it is interesting to compare schools in Singapore to those in the UK, where many students are encouraged to take the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects at GCSE (English, maths, a humanity, science, and a language). The EBacc is used as a performance measure by the UK government of how many students achieve grades A*-C in these five core subjects. While the EBacc does give parents more information about the academic rigour of a school, it is criticised for putting pressure on schools to focus on the EBacc’s more traditional academic subjects and for overlooking 'softer' subjects such as art and design, drama, and music. In Singapore, while there are no league tables of GCSE results, schools do have the freedom to offer a broader curriculum that may include more arts subjects.

Remember that you will be studying as many as 10 or 12 different subjects: these subjects involve different learning styles (compare learning history to art, for example), and they will have different forms of assessment (some are far more coursework based than others). Also, you are likely to be studying non-examination courses such as PE, life skills and PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) throughout the two years. Take all of this into consideration and take advantage of all the choices available at your school.

At Tanglin, in addition to the core subjects, students pick four additional courses (one humanities, one language, one arts/creative, and a ‘free’ choice). These options are as varied film studies, psychology, economics, Latin, graphic communication and Chinese.

Randall says:

“Whilst the programme of subject choices for each student will reflect individual interests and abilities, it is important to keep the range of subjects chosen as broad as possible. This is to ensure a balanced curriculum in terms of subjects, learning experiences, assessment formats and future opportunities.”

Who can advise me on GCSEs and A Levels?

When faced with the choice of 15-plus subjects, whose advice should you listen to? Teachers? Parents? Both?

“We recognise that each child is different and therefore not only encourage them to consider what they will learn but also how they learn and what skills they might develop,” says Randall.

“We encourage our students to triangulate advice from their subject teachers, their tutor and students in the year above who are taking the courses they are interested in, then share and evaluate this advice with their parents.”

GCSEs can be a real headache if you don’t yet know what career you want in the future, so what is the best way to keep your options open?

Randall advises:

“Play to your strengths and, where possible, try to keep a range of pathways open by choosing subjects that facilitate a myriad of degrees or careers later on. These are often termed as ‘traditional subjects’; however, there are many different routes into further education or careers and the focus should always be on studying what you enjoy, as that typically leads to the greatest fulfilment and success.”
A Level film studies students at Tanglin Trust School

How will GCSEs affect my A Level and university choices?

The truth is that while GCSEs will help you in your future career, they are not final. Some schools and colleges will look for good grades at GCSE for you to take the same subject at A Level, but you can also do certain A Levels without having studied the subject before.

Randall explains:

“If you are taking the core subjects such as English, maths and science then most subjects at A Level can be chosen. Specialist language courses may benefit more from GCSE study and certain A Levels naturally build upon the skills taught at a GCSE level such as history or art. It is always advisable to keep a good breadth at GCSE to enable a wider choice at A Level.”

Universities may want to see a particular GCSE grade in English, maths or science for certain degrees. “For example, medical and educational professional degrees often require a minimum grade at GCSE, especially in the UK and Australia,” says Randall. However, bear in mind that you don’t get the option of dropping these subjects, so whatever GCSEs you choose, you’ll still have a range of universities to choose from (if you get the grades, of course).

Even if you do regret choosing a particular subject it is not likely to be life-changing, as Randall explains.

“Some students wish they had not taken a certain GCSE, or wish they had a taken another GCSE. However, overall, these tend not to be life-changing regrets; whatever GCSE options are chosen, a student will benefit from the learning within that course. At Tanglin, you can swap GCSEs if you change your mind early on, but we do expect students to speak to teachers, their tutor and parents to ensure that they give due diligence to current subjects, as well as those they wish to pick up.”

How do I choose my A Levels?

GCSEs will pass in a flash, and two years later you may be choosing your A Level subjects. There are some key differences in this decision-making process. Whereas breadth is the name of the game at GCSE, you will now choose to narrow your scope of subjects by choosing just three (and sometimes four) A Levels. If you’re planning to study medicine you will need to focus on separate sciences, whilst linguists will opt for modern languages, and engineers will choose mathematics and physics.

In 2019, the Russell Group ditched its list of "facilitating subjects", which listed the preferred A Level subjects for the UK’s most selective universities. Today, it directs students to its Informed Choices website, which helps you understand which subjects open up different degrees, from media studies to sports science, history of art to economics.

Tanglin, which is currently the only international school in Singapore to teach A Levels, offers students a choice of more than 20 subjects; they must also complete the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) (an in-depth research and dissertation project) and Community, Activity and Service (a core part of the IB programme). It does also give students the choice of studying the broader IB Diploma Programme if they prefer to keep their options open.

Randall advises:

“Any Post-16 course discussion needs to consider the next step for a student, which in most circumstances is university. Therefore, our Post-16 pathway and subject choice interviews tend to consider the following factors; whether the student has a clear focus of study in mind or are they keen to maintain breadth, university subject choice and university destination (country).”

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