Making subject choices - A Guide For Parents

What should I consider when helping my son/daughter make their Sixth Form College choices?

As with GCSE, a key consideration is to avoid choices which close doors. You may have clear ideas about where you hope to go but most students have not. If University is likely to be the next step then check current requirements for a range of Universities for the kind of courses you may want to do and check that your choices at 16 will enable you to do those courses. Some employment routes may also want specific qualifications. In all cases it is better to gain high grades so selecting subjects that you enjoy and will be good at is important too. Do take advantage of your College interview or contact our guidance staff and ask all the questions you want. The following links are excellent places to start finding out about Higher education.  and


BTEC/Vocational or A Level routes?

A key consideration will be whether you prefer to follow qualifications based largely upon coursework (e.g. vocational BTEC or Cambridge Technical) or exams (e.g. A-level). If the former then do you want to focus upon one vocational area (e.g. an Extended Diploma in Business) or to take 2 smaller qualifications to broaden their options (e.g a Diploma in Sport plus Public Services). It may be, especially in creative subjects, that a vocational route will make more sense than doing several very similar A-levels. At Cirencester you can also do a vocational qualification alongside an A-level (eg Biology alongside Animal Management or Spanish alongside Travel and Tourism). You can also do a smaller vocational qualification to gain practical skills alongside an A-level programme (e.g. Animal Management alongside Science A-levels for Veterinary Nursing and some Veterinary Courses). On the other hand you may wish to move straight into a particular line of work through an apprenticeship. This would also be an option at a higher level after a vocational course or A-levels.


What are facilitating subjects and do they matter?

Facilitating subjects are those which have been identified as core A-levels by the Government. Schools and Colleges are judged on these so they may try to persuade you to just do them. Some degree courses at the more selective universities will expect your A Level programme to include 1 or 2 and occasionally 3 facilitating subjects. The Russell Group of research universities (most of the top Universities in the UK) list the following as facilitating subjects: Maths and Further Maths; Physics; Biology; Chemistry; History; Geography; Modern and Classical Languages; English Literature. Their website provides useful advice if you think you will be aiming at top Universities. Even at top universities, however, there are exceptions to these rules. If you are not looking at top Universities then facilitating subjects are less important and may not matter at all.


Are there other choices I should be aware of?

Again for particular degree courses there may be specific A-levels that Universities expect you to have. For example for Pharmacy you must have: Chemistry, plus at least one from Biology, Maths and Physics. Most top Economics Courses will require Maths. Degree courses vary hugely in this respect so you should do some research about the kind of courses you may progress to before making final choices.  On some degrees at Scottish Universities, having particular subjects (usually Maths) can mean that you go straight into year 2 (of 4 or 5) may also be some A-levels which particular courses do not ‘count’ or value less. There is no definite list of these but some universities such as the London School of Economics lists subjects such as Home Economics, Sports Studies and Travel and Tourism as ‘non-preferred’. Some universities will also discourage you from taking subjects that are similar. However, many subjects (especially Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences) at top universities will take almost any A-level as long as the grades are good. Top Universities may require A*, A, A so alongside facilitating or required subjects you need to think about which subjects you are likely to do best at. You may also want to ask which of our subjects consistently get high numbers of A*s at A-level. If you are going to go straight into employment there are cases where particular choices may be helpful. Maths for engineering and a language for airline cabin crew are examples. Overall however, the important thing is to get good grades and enjoy studying.


How big should the College programme be?

All students take a programme of at least 600 hours in each year. This is the equivalent of 3.5 A Levels or an extended diploma plus Maths GCSE plus work experience. All students also have a tutor period and all are expected to take part in enrichment. 


How many A-levels should I do?

There is no right answer to this. While universities generally make offers based upon 3 A-levels they will also want 3 good or extremely good ones. Studying 4 can give you breadth and a few students (usually top Maths or Science students) will do 5 including Further Maths. There is something positive about doing a full and busy programme that stimulates some students. Some students will opt for a mid-way position taking 3 A-levels with an AS-level. This may be particularly useful if an AS Level in a particular subject will get you onto a particular degree programme but you don’t want to study that subject to A Level.   It is also worth noting that some university courses require three A-levels and an AS. 


How can I tell if an A-level Course is well taught?

Pass rates can be misleading because they don’t tell you how many students have dropped out. High grades can also mislead if a course has been very selective about its intake. The best measure is value added. This compares performance of all students against those with the same GCSE score nationally. At Cirencester we use a national system of value added called ALPs. An ALPs score of 1-4 tells you that most students in a subject achieve better than expected. 5 is average and 6-9 suggests most students did worse than expected.


Should my son/daughter take an A-level alongside my BTEC or Cambridge Technical qualification?

If you have good GCSEs and if there is a possibility that you will want to go to University or into a competitive career area we would advise you to do so. Try to select an A-level that will complement your main course eg Psychology or Biology alongside Sport and enable you to develop academic writing and exam skills. Alternately, you may want to consider extended work experience.


What is a ‘student programme’?

Student programmes include the subjects they are taking, tutorial, enrichment, literacy and numeracy (if they haven’t got Maths or English GCSE at C or above it is compulsory to be taking a course leading towards getting that GCSE. It can also include work experience and other types of placement, support classes and special events. Each student’s programme should be designed around what they need to do to get to their next stage, whether that be university, employment, apprenticeship or self-employment. Increasingly we will be offering students ‘packages’ of particular combinations of subjects and enrichment to give them the best chance of progressing to employment or university.


Why do students have to retake Maths and English GCSE?

These subjects are fundamental requirements for many jobs and HE courses. Without them students are at a disadvantage. This is a major national priority and we are only funded for students who have these GCSEs or are working towards them. You cannot be a student at the College if you are not in one of these categories. We have a number of ways in which students can work towards these targets. Although for 2 years the grade C equivalent is 4, it will be moving up to 5. So we will be encouraging students with grade 4 to consider doing grade 5.