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Braving the GCSE Storm: A Dad's Guide to Adolescent Academia

Richard and Lyall from the Daddy & Dad family are standing on their doorstep with their school uniforms on. It's the first day of years nine and ten and they're ready for GCSEs
Rich and Lyall off to start years nine and ten at school

Being a dad is hard. Being a dad to a 14-year-old boy who's in the midst of choosing his GCSE options is even harder. You have to deal with a hormonal, rebellious, and clueless teenager who thinks he knows everything and you know nothing.

To make matters worse, you're expected to navigate a school system that bears no resemblance to how you remember it - what was wrong with A, B, C grades, and who came up with 1-9 as a better option? And, you have to confront the dreaded multiple-choice careers predictor questionnaire results.

If you did this as a 1990s teenager, as we did, you might remember being asked to fill out the equivalent of an oversized lottery ticket with your answers to perplexing job-based questions, which was then fed into a machine built in 1980-something and the results noisily spat from a dot matrix printer on nine meters of perforated paper. By the way, I was predicted to be a piano tuner. Jamie an antique dealer. For those of you that know me, you'll know I'm tone deaf. 0/100 for accuracy.

Richard, according to the digital equivalent of this ordeal, will become either a bricklayer or biotechnologist. A broad spectrum.

One of the most 'fun' parts of the GCSE selection process is the 'Choices Fair' in the school hall. Ours was last night. You know, the one where you have to drag your son or daughter to an overcrowded and noisy assembly hall at around teatime. Where you have to squeeze through a sea of sweaty teenagers, who have just finished a long day at school and PE, and who have no idea what personal hygiene is. Where all of your beloved offspring's energy has gone into painstakingly choosing their 'drip' rather than researching their options in advance. Where you have to listen to vague and contradictory advice, and where you have to make life-changing decisions in a matter of minutes. The one where your son has to pretend to be interested in stalls, posters, and leaflets, all the while trying to hide his embarrassment of being seen in public with his dad. Where you have to smile and nod, while you secretly wish that someone had moved the whole process online, much like the genius of the post-covid online parent's evening.

Having been through the process with Lyall last year, here are five Tips we'll be following this time around:

Start early. Try to bring up the topic in conversation as often as possible - be casual, at all costs! Don't let it feel like homework or any kind of formal exercise. Be gentle but persistent and encourage him to keep all options on the table for now.
Don't panic. Your son or daughter isn't the first one to go through this process and won't be the last.
Don't pressure. Your son or daughter is only 14 and will have different aspirations and abilities than you. If Richard is anything to go by, being a professional gamer or TikTok influencer is a perfectly viable career aspiration. Perhaps this is the same as all my school friends, much to my horror, of wanting to be professional footballers. You won't be surprised to learn that none were successful in this endeavour, but they all seemed to turn out ok.
Don't compare. Your son or daughter may not be as smart, talented, or successful as their peers or siblings. They may struggle with some subjects, exams, or assignments. They may not get the grades that you or they hoped for. That's fine. Don't make them feel inadequate or inferior by comparing them to others.
Don't worry. your son or daughter may not know what he wants to do with their life - who does at 14? They may not know how their GCSE options will affect their future. They may change their mind, or regret their choices. They may face difficulties, failures, or disappointments. That's inevitable. They're still learning and growing. Just hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Value every vocation. In the grand tapestry of society, every role has its importance and dignity. Just as a building requires both the architect and the bricklayer, our communities thrive on the diverse contributions of each member. Whether your child aspires to be a shopkeeper or a solicitor, a chef or a CEO, each career path holds its own value. It may be tempting to encourage business studies or computer science over performing arts or music. Resist that temptation and let them excel at the things they enjoy.
Use reverse psychology. In complete contradiction to my last point and if all else fails as you get closer to crunch time, and there's a particular subject you really, really think he should take, tell him he absolutely shouldn't choose it, knowing full well he'll rebel and pick it just to prove you wrong. Ah, the joys of teenage defiance!

In the grand scheme of things, choosing GCSE options is just one step on the journey of life.

It's natural to feel a bit overwhelmed or uncertain, but remember, it's not the be-all, end-all.

Encourage your son or daughter to explore, experiment, and trust their instincts. Remind them that there's no guaranteed formula for success, and even if things don't go exactly as planned, everything will work out in the end.

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