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After GCSEs – what next?

Richard Cairns, Head Master of Brighton College
After a summer of nervous anticipation, the GCSE results finally came out in mid-August and every sixteen year old started asking – what happens now? Should I retake any of my GCSEs? Should I carry on into the sixth form and study for A levels? If so, what A levels should I be doing? Should I opt to study those subjects in which I achieved my best GCSE grades? And what other factors should I take into account when choosing my A-level subjects? 
Most students and their parents will already have considered these questions and made their choices. But GCSE results offer an important opportunity to reflect on earlier decisions in the light of the grades actually received.
The first place to start is with the results themselves. GCSE grades really do matter because, unlike most other countries, university offers are made before students have actually completed their final qualifying exams – their A levels. This means that university admissions departments place enormous importance on GCSE grades and leading universities will be looking for a significant number of A* and A grades.
Universities will also be looking very closely at the particular subjects taken. GCSEs are not regarded as of equal value. Mathematics, English, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, History, Geography and a language are rated much more highly than Business Studies, Media Studies or Sociology. This fact was highlighted recently by Michael Gove when he introduced the English Baccalaureate, an umbrella qualification that is being awarded only to those students who gain a C grade or above in a handful of traditional subjects. In time, this new qualification may well become an essential component of any successful application to a Russell Group university.
Let us consider three possible scenarios: a set of poor results, a set of good results in less academic ‘soft’ subjects and a set of good results in traditional academic subjects. 
First of all, the poor results. Bluntly, doors to most good universities are slammed shut unless a student is prepared to have another stab at their GCSE exams. So students should consider re-sitting their subjects if they genuinely have university aspirations and also possess the intellectual potential to make a success of a degree course. Do be aware, however, that universities and employers will know that a student sat their GCSEs twice, so they need to have a plausible explanation ready.
Furthermore, students should not waste their time re-sitting GCSEs that universities hold in low regard. They should use the time to perform better in the core subjects that universities really want to see. And if a student really doesn’t want to repeat their GCSEs, they must face up to the fact that further study is not for them. They can use that time instead to consider vocational courses or an apprenticeship. This country needs skilled workers as much as it needs university graduates and we all know people who have made a great success of their lives without a degree. 
Good results in the wrong subjects?
What about the second scenario: good results but in the wrong subjects? An array of GCSEs in Ceramics, Citizenship and Communication Studies will sadly close almost as many doors as a set of poor results in a string of academic subjects. The initial ill-advised set of choices is often through no fault of the student concerned who may well have been advised to embark on softer options at GCSE to help the school’s league table position. This is a particular problem in certain parts of the state sector where pupils are seven times more likely to take media studies than independently educated children and half as likely to take a modern language. 
The focus in these schools is also overwhelmingly on students on the C/D borderline such that the gifted and talented are not stretched and challenged, ending up with B grades rather than the A* and A grades of which they are capable and which top universities demand. This is why only 21% of GCSE grades in the state sector last year were at A*/A. Compare that with 87% at my own school, Brighton College.
And what about the sunnier third scenario? What should students with a clutch of A*, A and B grades at GCSEs do next? How should they go about choosing the right A levels for them?
Here I have three pieces of advice for students.
Firstly, choose subjects you are passionate about. You will be devoting an enormous amount of time to the four subjects you study and it is essential that you enjoy them and want to discover more about them. And don’t simply opt for the subjects you did best at in GCSE. If you got an A grade in GCSE Physics but actually have no enthusiasm for it, don’t do it for A level.
Secondly, choose subjects that universities genuinely respect. Cambridge University has historically been very helpful in this area, providing a list of A-level subjects which ‘provide less effective preparation for our courses’. Their advice is that candidates should certainly do no more than one of the following subjects to A level:
  • Accounting
  • ICT
  • Art and Design
  • Leisure Studies
  • Business Studies
  • Media Studies
  • Communication Studies
  • Music Technology
  • Dance
  • Performance Studies
  • Design Technology
  • Performing Arts
  • Drama/Theatre Studies
  • Photography
  • Film Studies
  • Physical Education
  • Health and Social Care
  • Sports Studies
  • Home Economics
  • Travel and Tourism
Other leading universities would concur and emphasise in their prospectuses the value of studying subjects like Mathematics, Physics, History and English. Sadly, many young people in poorer areas are not even offered the opportunity to study these subjects. Statistics from 2007 show that 247 comprehensive schools did not enter any pupils for A level Physics, 187 did not enter any pupils for Chemistry and 96 schools did not enter any for Mathematics. 
Thirdly, choose subjects that are of direct relevance to the actual course you wish to study and the career upon which you will wish 
to embark. These are the most relevant A-level choices for a number of popular degrees:
  • Biological Sciences – Biology and/or Chemistry; Maths preferred
  • Dentistry – Biology and Chemistry
  • Economics – Maths; Economics preferred
  • Engineering – Maths and Physics; Further Maths preferred
  • English – English and a further essay writing subject
  • History – History and a further essay writing subject or a language
  • Languages – the relevant language
  • Law – at least one essay writing subject
  • Maths – Maths and Further Maths
  • Medicine – Biology, Chemistry and Maths or Physics
  • Physical Sciences – Maths, Physics and Chemistry
  • Veterinary Science – Biology and Chemistry
And if you are still undecided about your degree or career aspirations, the following subjects would be good subjects to take at A level, in order to keep your options open: Biology, Chemistry, Economics, English Literature, History, Languages (Ancient or Modern), Mathematics (and Further Maths), Physics.
The message is clear. Amidst the post-GCSE euphoria, it is wise for every prospective sixth former to pause just for a moment to check that the A-level courses upon which they are about to embark will genuinely enthuse them and, in the fullness time, ensure that they are well placed to apply for the course of their choice at the university of their choice. I promise them that it will be time well spent. 
Richard Cairns is the Head Master of Brighton College. In 2012, Richard was named England’s Public School Headmaster of the Year by Tatler.­­­­­­  In 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 the college achieved the best A-level results of any co-educational school in England, and in November 2011 the college was named England’s Independent School of the Year 2011–12 by The Sunday Times. Richard graduated from Oxford University with a First in History and subsequently worked as a trainee solicitor in Sydney, Australia and as a volunteer teacher in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. His teaching career began at The Oratory School. He then moved to Stewart’s Melville College in Edinburgh as Head of History. He was then appointed to Magdalen College School, Oxford, as Usher (Deputy Head) in 1999. He left Oxford in December 2005 to take on the headship of Brighton College. In 2008, he was named one of the 1,000 most influential people in England by the Evening Standard and in 2009, he joined Debrett’s list of People of Today 2010. His headship has been marked by a number of innovations including the introduction of Mandarin Chinese as a core part of the curriculum. He has also helped to establish a new scholarship scheme with HSBC and an East End comprehensive in the borough of Newham, and the college is one of eight independent schools setting up the country’s first Sixth Form College Free School in East London. The college is also in detailed negotiations regarding the establishment of a number of schools overseas, the first of which opened in Abu Dhabi in 2011.
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