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“We’ve got strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, dairy vanilla, nut sundae, fruit whip, Cornish cream, plum surprise, rhubarb fool, knickerbocker glory…”

Readers of a certain vintage will instantly recognise this classic Two Ronnies comedy sketch, in which customer Ronnie Corbett asks ice cream attendant Ronnie Barker for a scoop of cheese and onion or smoky bacon.  Explaining that ice cream doesn’t come in those flavours, Ronnie B lists those he does sell: a bewildering array of delicious possibilities, each as mouth-watering as the one before.  In the end, this being the Two Ronnies, Ronnie C decides he doesn’t like any of them, and asks instead for a packet of crisps.  The flavour?  Raspberry ripple.

I’m always reminded of this sketch at GCSE options time.  While we can’t quite match the range of flavours at Ronnie B’s emporium (22, I counted very carefully), we do get pretty close, and somehow   Year 9 pupils have to pick just four from the list.  How on earth?

To be honest, I’m not sure.  Fitting in the visceral thrill of History, with its hyper-relevant 20th Century focus, might require the sacrifice of Drama’s creative dynamism.  Opting to become expert at Classical Greek may mean there’s no room to take on Geography’s nuanced investigation of the physical and human worlds.  Embracing a second modern language (I declare an interest here!) say, the linguistic and cultural adventure of Mandarin could mean jettisoning the inventive challenges of DTE.

Yet none of these, or the myriad other permutations, allow the comparison of like with like.  Each subject is valuable and fascinating and unique – and we firmly believe that there is no hierarchy among them.

Yes, seven subjects (English Literature and Language, Maths, all three sciences and one modern foreign language) are compulsory, but that’s only to ensure that all our pupils experience a broad and balanced core education.  Of the other options, I am absolutely genuine when I say that none is more intrinsically valuable than any of the others.

A GCSE in German won’t get your child any nearer to the university of their choice than one in Art (unless, of course, they plan to study German).  Similarly, Latin is no “better” or “worse” than Theology and Philosophy.  All are taught by deep subject specialists, passionate about their areas and keen to share their enthusiasm and know-how.  All are endlessly enthralling and will open up an enormous range of future interests and studies.

It follows, therefore, that the only way to choose is to allow your children to pursue their interests.  Don’t lock down their opportunities to flourish by adhering to outdated notions of some subjects being more valuable or difficult or credible, and therefore the sorts of thing that clever pupils should do.  Instead, allow your children to pick what’s right for them.  They will know better than we parents do what’s involved, how much they like it, and whether they will be sufficiently motivated to fully engage with, rather than just complete, their homework.

It’s not often that I hope your children will be sad, but this is one of those occasions.  In choosing some wonderful options, they will be leaving behind, perhaps forever, the study of others, equally wonderful.  If that’s not a cause for a tinge of sadness, I don’t know what is.  A bittersweet sensation indeed – much like a cheese and onion ice cream.

About the author
Adam Pettitt, Head
Adam has been Head of Highgate since 2006. He was previously Head of Modern Languages at Abingdon School and then Deputy Head at Norwich School. He read French and German at university and continues to teach both subjects to Y9 pupils at Highgate. Beyond work, Adam enjoys running marathons and is a recent convert to inter-railing.