A wise course for the future There is a bewildering array of GCSE options. Below, Karen Gold looks at key po inters for making that first career move

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The Independent Online
Choosing GCSE subjects and early career planning are suddenly back in fashion. This year, for the first time since a national curriculum was agreed, the Government is positively encouraging young teenagers and their parents to make choices betwee n school subjects, to consider vocational subjects at the age of 14, and to start career planning in discussion sessions that schools are now obliged to provide for pupils in their third year (year nine) of secondary schooling.

With schools poised to send out choices booklets and run spring term options evenings for year nine and their parents, the range of decisions for some families may be considerable. Under the new curriculum, 14-to 16-year-olds must study English, maths, science, PE and RE. Those entering year 10 in 1995 do not have to take technology or modern languages, but as these subjects become compulsory again the following year, most schools are likely to insist that all pupils take them.

But beyond the core subjects, which are likely to occupy about half the school week, there is a bewildering variety of choice, from textiles and drama to business studies or classical civilisation. Below are some of the factors that youngsters and their parents need to take into account before making a decision.

Inclination or ability Offered a choice of subjects, many students will plump for those they enjoy most, regardless of whether these coincide with areas in which they perform best. To an extent they are right to do so; two years spent in unpalatable lessons is a grim prospect and a committed student is likely to work harder at improving weaknesses in their work.

But all teenagers should now have annual school records of achievement, and possibly results of internal school exams, as well as corrected course work to look back on. If pupils seem to be chosing favourite subjects unthinkingly, particularly if they risk dropping below the crucial GCSE grade C - any grade below C is not equivalent to the old GCE O-level - parents and teachers should encourage them to compare their track record and potential results in their favourite subjects with other areas in whichthey might do better.

Keeping options open Youngsters often need encouragement from parents to do more than guess at what subjects they will need in the future. Different courses, colleges, universities and professions have different requirements; for example, many English and history degree tutors want their students to have passed a modern language at GCSE. A surprising number of jobs can be closed to students who have taken the shorter "single" science course at GCSE, including photography or sports management.

Most schools will have introduced pupils to their careers library by year nine. There they can find books and databases to help them check details of jobs and courses and their entry requirements.

Specialisation Some pupils show real flair and commitment to subjects by the age of 13 or 14. They may want to do three sciences, particularly if they hope for a career in medicine or veterinary surgery, or to concentrate on languages or performing arts.

Recent policy has been to discourage early specialisation; young people need a varied background in preparation for working life, and some who seem immovable on a pathway will change their minds. But extra time in the school week has been allocated so that 14- to 15-year-olds can pursue special gifts or interests, including a flair for business or technology (see new types of courses below).

Schools are likely to come under increasing "consumer" pressure from teenagers and their parents to offer specialisation.

New types of courses Vocational courses that take the equivalent time of two GCSEs, called Part One GNVQ, which cover business studies, health and social care or manufacturing, are to be offered in a number of schools this autumn. Other schools already offer job-related cour ses, and many also have relatively new subjects, such as sports studies, media studies or psychology.

Starting new subjects often restores some sparkle to a timetable that seems to have been the same since the middle of primary school. But parents need to be sure their children understand exactly what these involve. Sports studies, for example, requires essay writing and scientific investigation; it doesn't just mean more time on the pitch or in the gym.

Half subjects A standard GCSE course takes around 10 per cent of the school week. Exam boards are beginning to offer combined GCSEs, for example history and geography, or music and technology, which comprise 5 per cent of the week for each of the two subjects. This wa y pupils can keep more subjects going, though in smaller amounts.

They gain one GCSE, and one grade made up by averaging performances in the two combined subjects - something to bear in mind if your child is far better at one half of the combination than the other.

Exams vs coursework The days of GCSE grades being based on 100 per cent coursework and no exams are over. But there is still a large variation - from as little as 20 per cent to 60 per cent of total marks - in how much coursework is allowed to go forwardas part of the final GCSE grade. Parents and teachers need to discuss if pupils are better suited to one form of assessment than another.

Choosing teachers Schools vary from the sensitive to the scathing in how they respond to a child's anxiety about being taught by a teacher they dislike - or who they think dislikes them. But it is a real factor for some teenagers in choosing their options, and adults need to do more than just dismiss the problem if they are to persuade pupils to make rational decisions.

Certain teachers may also be associated with better or worse GCSE results (see chart below).

Alternative plans Most school option forms will ask for second and third choices in case particular subjects are over-subscribed or do not run. Pupils with a special case for getting their first choice - for example a career requirement or a family link - should inform the school before the options are allocated; afterwards sounds like special pleading.

Even so, parents and young people need to be aware that they may not get their first choice. They have to put some thought beforehand into finding an acceptable alternative, either at school or in an evening class or club. An alternative is to postpone the course until the sixth form, when extra GCSEs are often available.

Karen Gold's book for 13- and 14-year-olds on how to choose courses and careers, `13+: Pathways to Success', is published by Hobsons Publishing today. It is available price £9.99 from bookshops or Biblios Distribution Services, Star Road, Partridge Green, Sussex RH13 8LD (0403 710851).

It takes two to untangle THE PARENT KIM BROWN WE felt incredibly trapped by the options system, trying to disentangle what Rachel was good at from what she liked, and whether she was choosing something just because she liked the teacher. Also, we had to be careful about some of the teachers. One said "Oh yes, Rachel's definitely one of ours", and I knew Rachel wasn't good at that subject.

I wanted her to do a second language to keep more options open. I think generally she wasn't looking beyond the next two years as much as we were. But we also found it incredibly difficult just trying to understand the system - what was considered a workable or maximum number of subjects. When I was at school we just collected O-levels like marbles.

THE PUPIL RACHEL HEWITT, 14

GCSEs: English, maths, double science, French German, history, music, plus evening class in art WHEN I brought my options form home I got this talk from my mum out of the blue about how it was my future but she would like to be involved in it. If it had just been up to me, I think I would have only done one language.

But I think she was right, really. Languages are useful, and if you stop, then it's difficult to start again.

One of my friend's parents simply said: "It's your future. Do what you think best." On one level I'd have liked my parents to say that; choosing music or art was really hard.

But on another level, I think that if they'd said it was just my decision, I'd have thought they didn't care.

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