Future Focus

We hear from four IB and British curriculum teachers on what students should consider when choosing their electives for senior school.

Whether selecting what subjects to take for GCSEs or the IB Diploma Programme, the pressure on students to choose the right electives that will carry them through the remainder of school and then into college is more or less the same.

Students are expected to have an idea of what they want to study a few years in advance and their subject choices need to support and reflect that. They are choices that will potentially affect the rest of their lives. It is no longer necessarily about the information students learn in each subject, but rather the skills they acquire. In today’s world, it is not certain what types of jobs students will be doing in the future, as they will likely be working in sectors that have yet to be established. “What it is essential is that we prepare our students to become creative, excellent communicators, critical thinkers, and give them the skills to be able to work collaboratively. We believe these are the skills they will need to be successful,” says Rhys Headley, Assistant Principal at GEMS FirstPoint School — The Villa (FPS).

Students can expect to take around nine subjects, and they might be asked to make their selection in Year 8 rather than Year 9 because schools may offer the GCSE curriculum over two or three years. This is something Doug Pettitt, Secondary Principal at GEMS Wellington Academy — Al Khail (WEK), says parents should keep in mind when selecting a school for their children.

WEK offers a two-year GCSE programme because the school maintains students should stay within a broad Key Stage 3 curriculum for longer to establish their strengths and build a strong foundation so that they are ready for GCSE study, says Doug. He adds that in all schools following the National Curriculum for England, students study several core subjects that are compulsory, including English, Maths and Science, although even here there may be some choice. Maths and Science offer different tiers of entry — higher and foundation. In English, students usually take Literature and Language, worth two GCSEs, but this is not always the case. Science offers a single, combined, and triple qualification route, with the triple being the most demanding in terms of content. “Schools will often place students on pathways depending on their previous performance and ability, but they should always do this by engaging with parents to explain their rationale. For example, a student may want to study single sciences at A Level and university but may be inhibited by being placed on a combined science route,” says Doug.

Additional subjects students can take will depend on the individual school, yet students are normally able to choose at least one course from each of the following areas: Arts (such as Music and Drama), Design and Technology; Humanities (such as History and Geography); and Modern Foreign Languages (MFL). Sometimes, schools offer new subjects, such as Law, Psychology, and Sociology Schools in the UK predominantly do pure GCSEs due to a focus on their rankings on performance tables, yet many international schools that are not so constrained choose to do iGCSEs instead, as they offer an international flavour to their content. In the likes of iGCSE English, they offer a coursework option, too. “Students can study for work-related qualifications, also called vocational qualifications or technical awards. They can help students develop practical skills in subjects such as construction, computing, and childcare, and are well respected by universities and employers, especially in the UK,” says Doug. By extending the GCSEs by a year to maximise student outcomes, it does also raise the question of whether students are being placed under unnecessary extra stress.

Rhys says that FPS tries to mitigate this by taking an organic approach to supporting individuals in choosing their options. “Part of our ethos focuses on looking at each student individually and making decisions with that individual’s best interests at heart. This means that for some students who are unsure of what they want to do in the future, we would suggest that they keep their options open.”

This means that the individual takes a broad and balanced approach to picking their options and selects a variety of subjects. This might typically include a language, a humanities subject, a technology subject, and a business/ ICT-type subject. These, alongside the core curriculum subjects of English, Maths and Science, enable the student to specialise at a later age when they have decided which pathway they wish to follow.

Rhys stresses to parents that by making the decision not to specialise too soon and keep a broad and balanced subject set, parents are not holding their children back. There is still plenty of time to specialise later during their post-16 studies. Specialising too early could set them up to fail if they decide two years later that they want to follow a different career. WEK takes a similar approach by encouraging students to pick a wide range of subjects, while not making it mandatory for all areas of the curriculum to be covered.

“We appreciate that students can either start to specialise in similar subjects in greater depth or develop their understanding and skills across a much broader range of subjects,” says Doug. In some cases, students are very clear about where their strengths lie and what they want to do in the future, and they may decide to specialise at an earlier age. This means that they may pick several subjects from the same group, such as Dance, Drama and PE, or Business and Economics, through which they can really improve their skill set and knowledge in that specific area. Either way, students gain qualifications that will help them move on to the next stage of their learning journey.

“Unlike other curricula, the IB Diploma Programme asks students to select several subjects in varying disciplines. As such, a lot of thought and consideration needs to be dedicated to ensuring students are selecting subjects that meet university entry requirements and speak to their individual interests,” says Rania Hussein, DP English Teacher, Head of Senior School, GEMS World Academy — Dubai (GWA).

There are six subject groups and students are expected to take one subject from each group. However, if they do not wish to study a subject from one group, they can substitute it for an extra subject in another group. Three of their subjects must be taken at standard level, and three at higher level. They also need to complete the core subjects of the IB Diploma: Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS), which is done in the student’s own time; Theory of Knowledge; and a 4,000- word extended essay that is an independent piece of academic research, guided by the school, says Ruairi Cunningham, IB Diploma Programme Coordinator and Global Politics Teacher at GEMS International School — Al Khail (GIS).

The first subject group covers language and literature. In many cases, students study English as their first language and explore aspects of language and literature. Group two focuses on language acquisition, which is usually a modern language course with an emphasis on the acquisition of the language and its use in a range of contexts, says Rania. Group three consists of subjects such as business, economics, psychology, history, philosophy, geography and global politics. Studying any one of these subjects allows for the development of a critical appreciation of human experience and behaviour.

In addition, students must also study a science subject such as biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, environmental science and sports science. These subjects make up group four and are a necessary aspect of the Diploma Programme. Group five encourages students to appreciate the international dimensions of mathematics. Students have an option to study mathematics analysis and approaches, or mathematics applications and interpretations. Finally, Group six is comprised of the arts. Students can opt to study art, music, or theatre.

Course selection begins in Grade 10, after the winter break, when presentations are made to parents and students about the 37 courses offered at GIS at standard and higher level. Each student receives personalised guidance through one-on-one meetings with the school’s University Guidance Counsellor and IB Diploma Coordinator. This meeting covers several areas, such as the subjects in which students can perform well at a higher level, and subjects that students can use to help them add value to their diploma score, as well as those courses where students should refrain from choosing a higher level. Subjects that they struggle with could negatively impact their final diploma outcomes.

“Students must also keep in mind the requirements to study overseas. It is critical to ensure the courses selected for DP are recognised by each country’s ministry of education. For example, Global Politics as a diploma course has just been recognised this year by the German Ministry of Education, so students who are interested in studying at university in Germany are now able to take this course, whereas before they may have had to take History or Business Management,” says Ruairi.

Ruairi adds that the choices students finally make in Grade 10 for their diploma will impact the universities they can apply to. For example, Warwick University in the UK would only have taken the current math HL course for an economics degree, so students who chose SL math would not have been able to attend that university to study economics. Whatever options students pick they should be improving their skills in each and the subject should promote this type of learning. Choosing subject options involves big decisions and can be a stressful time. However, schools have a vested interest in their students’ success, and there should always be teaching staff available to advise them in achieving their dreams.


  • The programme/s they wish to study
  • Which institution they’d like to attend and in which country
  • The subjects they are good at, interested in, and enjoy
  • How courses are marked — if they don’t like exams, they may prefer subjects that include coursework
  • When choosing between two subjects, they should think about how each option fits with their other selections — does it fit in or provide a welcome change? When taking several essay-based subjects, it can be nice to include one with a more practical focus