Subject Choices in The International Cambridge Syllabus

May 31, 2021

There are many stages and events in a student’s career when they need the help and full support of those around them. From the first day of school, to plays and performance and graduations, there are times when the student cannot act alone and needs that helping hand to gently guide them through an experience. Making subject choices is one of those times but does not always share the limelight that might be attributed to, say, a haul of medals on sports day.

During the early stages of KS3, students will naturally begin to populate language levels based on their exposure to the language, development in it, and their subsequent ability. These are the early stages of subject choice decisions but are informed more by circumstance than by potential future requirements. It is at the end of Year 9 that the first round of tangible subject choices need to be made and the decisions made at this stage can reverberate not just through the next few years of the student’s education journey, but can also impact upon the route that their life takes from that point on.

Before looking at the types of choices available to students in the latter stages of Year 9, it is essential to look at some of the issues that can all too often arise when students do not give their subject choices due care and consideration. Obviously, one of the worst situations a student can find themselves in is applying for A Levels or University and being told that they do not have the requisite amount of subjects or, indeed, the correct subjects required by a specific course. This is a huge speed bump for any student to meet and needs to be avoided at all costs. The education process should run smoothly from the day a young child waltzes into their first day of preschool, all the way up to picking up their final (hopefully) postgraduate qualification. Having to put the breaks on for a year or two to retake a subject that they thought they had left behind years earlier can have significant implications for the student’s progress, interrupting their natural sense of momentum and rhythm. 

Another common issue that ill conceived subject choices can cause is the end of Year 10 or even halfway through Year 11 desire to switch or drop subjects. Obviously, no school will recommend allowing a student to switch to a new subject halfway through, what is already, a short two year course, but even more alarming is the wish to drop a subject after so many months. Just think of all that wasted time, energy and focus. It could have and should have been directed somewhere else. These two common issues really can be avoided as long as the correct diligence is applied to the process of subject choices in Year 9. 

For IGCSE, it is recommended that a student take around 8 subjects. This ensures that a student is on a level footing with students internationally who might be taking other equivalent exams. While this is the first stage at which a student needs to start making informed decisions about their potential future career, 8 subjects does give them a good range to pursue not only the subjects which they know they need for their further education, but also their interests and passions. This is a key point worth noting. There is room for subjects that a parent might feel is not essential for their chosen career path. Here is a list of subjects that can be casualties of this mindset: IGCSE PE, Food and Nutrition, History, Literature, Sociology and Travel and Tourism. This list is not exhaustive, as there are many more subjects that do not always get explored in an effort to streamline choices directly towards future careers. 

Although a student and their family may well have a solid understanding of where they want to end up at the end of their educational journey, it is still too early to begin the process of specialising exclusively in one stream or another. Later in life, it becomes apparent that employers will not be too interested in what subjects the student took in their IGCSE, they will be more interested in hiring a confident individual who is an expert in their chosen field. If a student is forced into subjects that they are not interested in, there is a strong possibility that they will perform below expectation and, ultimately, take that apathy forward into their future career. This is a delicate balancing act that all parents and their children need to walk. A parent needs to guide in a manner that will lead to an employable future without stifling their interest in learning. 

On a practical level, there are easy actions that a student and their parents can take prior to making their Year 9 subject choices. Different universities in different areas of the world have different requirements. These need to be ascertained before making final subject decisions and can be done so easily. Students can approach their teachers for guidance or can contact universities directly. Keep in mind that all institutions are in the business of attracting more students so reach out to them via their websites and you will find that they are very willing to help. Have some questions ready to ask, such as what subjects are required or what levels of language are needed. Armed with the knowledge that they have made the correct choices for their future and for their educational development, the student can enter KS4 with the confidence that comes from knowing that they are putting their best foot forward.

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Mr. John O’Connor holds a BA in Humanities, Postgraduate Diploma in Education and an MA in 1950s  Beat Literature. He has been teaching abroad for almost ten years.