Navigating the Exam System (Part Three)


I once saw a quote about being a parent. I can’t remember where I saw it, but it went something like this: you probably know more than you think you do. I like this quote. No matter how many books, articles or blogs you read, it is a good idea to go with your instinct. It is a good quote, because it works. Most of the time.


When it comes to schools the statement: ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ may be more appropriate.


Everyone has an opinion of school based on their own experience. Often this is useful. You can use your first-hand experience to help you to navigate the complexities of the school system – without this, you would be lost. Sometimes, however, mixed in with all of that useful experience, there may be some ‘misconceptions’. 


Maybe stemming from poor advice you were given at school or through not keeping up-to-date with current trends, whatever the root, it is important to address some of these misconceptions when it comes to choosing exam subjects – no one wants to mistakenly give bad advice. Definitely not a parent to their child.


In this blog, I will pose some common ‘misconceptions’ I see. It is important to note, in none of these examples is there a correct answer. You should do what you feel is best for your child. I just want to draw them to your attention so that you have all of the information you need to make the right choice. ‘Misconceptions’ is definitely not the right word – if you can think of a better one, please let me know.

ONE: More is better

Is it better to do lots of GCSEs?


In one school I worked at, the leadership took the decision to offer only 8 GCSEs. This meant that we were able to offer lots of other activities as part of the curriculum – for example, social action projects and a brilliant work-experience programme.


However, some parents decided to move their child out so that they could study more (up to 14) at a local ‘exam factory’ school. Of course, this is their choice and they know their child and their context better than me. But I couldn’t help wondering if they were under the assumption that more must mean better.


As with most things in life, balance is the key. 8 GCSEs is enough to access all universities – we sent students to Cambridge and Oxford with only 8 GCSEs…


In fact, it may have been because we limited the choice to eight that these students got into Oxford and Cambridge (and thrived when they were there). Why..?


  1. As long as your child studies at least 7 GCSEs, the grades are more important than the number. Getting 8 top GCSEs is far better than 13 average ones. As I noted in my previous blog, the most common number of GCSEs to take is 8 (25% of students) or 9 (30% of students). Only tiny proportions take more than 10.
  2. Does pressure and stress make you perform your best? For most, this is not the case. The more GCSEs, the more work, the more exams, the more stress.
  3. Exams really aren’t everything. When applying for a job, your character and personality is as important as grades. Anyone reading this who has also recruited staff will know this is true (I genuinely think I got my first teaching job because the staff band – with the headteacher on guitar – needed a drummer…). When applying for university, one key component will be the ‘personal statement’ – this is a great way to stand out from the crowd. When will your child have time to be in the school musical, play an instrument, be in the Scouts, play football for the local team if they are constantly studying because they picked 12 GCSEs?


As will all things in education, every decision has side effects…


TWO: Arts subjects aren’t useful

Linked to the above, there can be a view of ‘why pick drama? You don’t want to be an actor’. You can replace ‘drama’ with pretty much any arts subject. 


This somewhat misses the point – very few university courses or jobs expect GCSEs in certain subjects except English and Maths. Picking arts subjects may be a great way to balance out the GCSE curriculum and give your child a new perspective which might be helpful later. 


If your child loves a subject they are more likely to get a better grade than if they choose something they don’t like. The grade is more important than the subject.


This blog by Sally explores how she approached this issue with her child.

THREE: They should pick subjects which relate to jobs

I once taught a student who was brilliant at everything. She was going to get top grades in all of her subjects. She was desperate to do drama (and she was highly skilled at it). Her dad was adamant that she picked ICT (information and communication technology – basically, how to use a computer and some common software) as that would be more useful to her later on. We knew that having ICT on her list of GCSEs would not make a tiny bit of difference to her getting a job in the future. We knew that picking drama would be great for her wellbeing. Her dad was the deciding influence.



Of course, he meant well. He was trying to ensure the best future for his child. However, he was basing his view on a misconception – that GCSE qualifications are tied to jobs. At GCSE level, it is more important to get a good set of grades in a range of subjects. This means you have many options open at A Level and thus degree level. 



If you are keen that your child focuses on courses which are financially lucrative, the following table is the highest paid courses at university – you could work backwards from these courses to ensure the GCSE choice wont limit access to these courses (spoiler, it almost certainly won’t). Also, please remember the following:



  1. This data is based on the five years after graduation. Very few graduates progress straight to high-paying jobs, the rewards of having a degree usually come later.
  2. Past performance is not a guarantee of the future – your child probably won’t enter the job market for at least another four years and, if university is the aim, another seven years.

FOUR: GCSE qualifications are really important/unimportant

Both views can be alluring. It is easy to overstate the importance of GCSEs. Especially as a way to motivate your child to do well. The school will also be talking-up the importance of GCSEs as, for school league table positions, they matter. Teachers have to motivate quickly and at scale.

 However, we all know that it is not as simple as that. How you respond to your grades and what you do next matters far more. Top grades at GCSE does not guarantee a life of success and wealth and failure does not guarantee a life wasted.


It is also easy to swing too far in the other direction. In a previous school – in a very challenging context – many of the students were from families with a long history of unemployment. To them the deal of good GCSEs equal success didn’t seem true. It is also the case that many successful and happy people did not do well in school.


Achieving good grades in English, maths, science and a nice range of other subjects – whilst also spending time on non-school related development – is a good foundation to build upon. It doesn’t guarantee a happy, successful life, nor does failing mean a life of misery! 


To sum up, GCSEs are important – in balance. Getting good grades in a range of subjects (particularly English and maths) will make many more options available. But striving for 14 top grades in only traditional academic subjects, at the expense of all other things in life, might not be the best use of the last two years of schooling.

In my final blog in this series I explain the different qualifications available at schools – including the difference between GCSEs and BTECS.

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.


* indicates required
School phase of child/children

One comment

Leave a reply and let me know what you think!

%d bloggers like this: