Navigating the Exam System (Part Two)

Common Questions

One of the reasons I launched this project was because I know how complex the school system is. As an experienced teacher and school leader, I have more information available to help me to navigate my child’s education. 


It doesn’t mean I get it right. 


It does mean that I make complex decisions with confidence – knowing that, whatever the outcome, I thought-through all of the options and made what I considered to be the right-call at the time. 


One of the most complex situations you will deal with as a parent is exam options at age fourteen (or, in some cases, age thirteen). You will be balancing the long-term and the short-term needs of your child – enjoyment, wellbeing and friendship groups now, whilst ensuring they have the qualifications they need for an ever-changing future.


There are many options to choose from and often compromises to be made – how can you navigate these with confidence? You will be given a lot of information, and there is more to be found online, but how do you know you can trust it? If you have questions, is there an independent expert you can turn to?


In this piece I want to address some of the common questions I have heard during my career in schools. Whilst I hope this blog will be useful, I know there will be many questions I have not answered. If you would like to arrange a call to discuss any questions you have or talk-through options, please get in touch at or book a free call with me at

How many subjects should my child choose for GCSE?

Here is the most recent data published by Ofqual:

Number of GCSEs picked by students. Source: OFQUAL

As you can see, around a third of students take 9 GCSE subjects and around a quarter take 8 GCSEs. Anything above 7 should be enough to get you into any sixth-form and later university, but 8/9 is fairly normal. I question the benefit of taking more than 10 – I will explain why later in my next blog.



Interestingly, the average number has been decreasing in recent years:

What is the average number of GCSEs picked? Source: OFQUAL

This may be down to changes introduced in recent years which I discussed in my previous post.

Which GCSEs does my child need to study?

All students must study English, maths and science (either double or triple – more on this later).


The main limits will be imposed by the school:


Limited specialisms: For example not offering German due to not having a German specialist teacher

Limited capacity: For example, not having enough art teachers to offer art and photography 

Timetabling constraints: For example, timetabling history and geography at the same time

School values: For example, some schools might make it compulsory to study religious education


This means, you will probably see something like this (although, not many schools will be offering Latin or Classical Greek)

Example choices offered at GCSE

In addition, your child should still study PSHE (personal, social and health education) and have some physical activity as part of their school curriculum.


So, in theory, other than English, maths and science, your child has free choice. However, in the real world of school limitations, the choice will be curtailed…


These are all part of the trade-offs parents must make when it comes to education decisions, but which they might not be aware of. 


I taught in a small school and many parents chose the school for this reason – smaller class sizes and better relationships with teachers. Some were surprised when it came to GCSE that the school was not offering courses such as psychology and business studies. The trade-off with being a small school meant we had fewer staff and therefore fewer specialists. 


So if my child wants to be a psychologist and the school doesn’t offer psychology at GCSE, should I look for another school…?

Should my child choose GCSEs related to jobs?

The simple answer is no, the longer answer is maybe. If your child has decided on a career path* then it is worth looking at the degree or a level course requirements and work backward from that. Sites such as The Uni Guide can help with this. Otherwise, you can find this information by searching university courses and looking at the entry requirements (most will probably not even mention GCSEs)

For the vast majority of courses, having a nice range of qualifications with decent grades is more than enough to keep doors open.


However, not choosing certain subjects will limit their options at A Level. For example, not studying a language will likely mean that they can’t then study the language at A Level. This may later limit the university courses they can study. Other examples of this may include subjects like music and history – however, this is very dependent on the institution, teacher and student. I was always happy to take students for A Level history if they had good grades in English – it is helpful if a student has studied history previously, but not essential. The chances are, if your child doesn’t want to pick geography at GCSE, it is highly unlikely that they will then decide they want to study it in more depth at A Level. So this paragraph will not be relevant to most anyway – but it is worth bearing in mind.


For most university courses, A Level choice is far more important than GCSE choice. The main complications are usually around ‘triple-science’… 

What is 'triple-Science' and 'Combined Science'?

The name is confusing. Whether your child studies double award science (2 GCSES) or triple award science (3 GCSES) they will still be studying all of the three main branches of science – physics, chemistry and biology. 


The main difference between the two is the level of depth. Triple-Science covers more content and is seen as more difficult – so many schools will limit access to this qualification. Double-science on the other hand covers each of the branches in less depth. At the end of the course, for double science, they will get two GCSEs but triple-science students will get three GCSEs – one each for physics, chemistry and biology.


In short, unless your child is sure that they want a career* in the sciences (such as medicine) or will want to study science at A Level, then it probably won’t make a huge difference whether they take triple or double science. If your child wants to study science at A Level and beyond, triple-science is the better option.


For more detailed information and discussion around this, check out this blog.


*Very few people know what they want to do as a career when they are 14. Most of us were completely unaware about the huge range of jobs available to us. On top of this, less and less careers are now in one field – most people change at least once. Achieving strong grades in a good mix of subjects is the way to keep doors open. 

What are 'tiered' exams? What is the difference between 'Foundation' and 'Higher'?

In maths, Science and foreign languages (and statistics if offered) there are two options for entry – foundation and higher. Whether your child picks foundation or higher is not published on results day – a grade 5 is a grade 5, no matter which route was taken. Around 20% of the content in the exam paper is the same across the two tiers.


The main difference between the two entries is the risk and reward. A grade 4 (standard pass) is the lowest awarded grade in the higher-tier papers. This means that if your child does not do well enough to achieve a grade 4 (standard pass), they will fail and leave with a U. If however, your child takes the foundation paper, the highest grade they can achieve is a grade 5 (strong pass). Even if they score 100% in the exam, they will leave with a grade 5. Depending on the circumstances, they may have scored much less in the higher-tier paper but left with a higher grade.


Which route to enter can be highly challenging – particularly if your child is on the grade 4 / 5 boundary in mocks. The teacher will have an important view, but remember, they can’t predict the future and they only have the context of the classroom to draw upon. You know how hard (or not) your child is working at home.


When I was in this position, I chose to enter Spanish at foundation level (against the wishes of my teacher). My parents had booked a holiday (ironically, to Spain) during the preparation work for one of the modules. I was worried I would be taking too much of a risk and my parents advised that ‘you don’t want to be a translator anyway’. I scored 100% in my exam. I came out with a C. My lowest grade across my subjects. I almost certainly would have achieved a higher grade if I had taken the higher paper. 

What is the difference between foundation and higher? Souce: OFQUAL

Does the exam board matter? Are some exam boards harder?

Is learning the piano easier than learning French? All exam boards are monitored by the government body Ofqual. Ofqual ensures that all exams are of equal difficulty. That does not mean they are all the same. Exam board choice in most schools will be based on which exam board the teacher is most comfortable with. As with anything, the more you do something, the easier it becomes.


Does the exam board matter? As a parent, the main thing is simply knowing which exam board each subject is using. Many well-meaning parents have bought the wrong revision guide or forced their child to watch a BBC Bitezise video on a topic not covered in the exam their child is taking.

Next Steps

In my next blog in this series, I will be exploring some ‘misconceptions’ parents often have about school subjects, GCSEs and exams…

I am running a three part online course to help you navigate school options and exams. You can find out more and sign-up here. If you would like to book a free call with me to see if I can help, please book here.


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