The Pressures of Teaching an Option Subject

Every subject has its difficulties and every department in a school will face various challenges. But I feel the pressures of teaching an option subject are very real, especially at this time of year. We are now at that stage when students are choosing their options, and it has been on my mind to blog about this.

By Option Subject I of course mean a non-core, non Ebacc subject – one that students will choose for GCSE. They range from Music to Drama, Design to Dance, Art to Food Tech.

So what are the pressures of teaching an Option Subject and how can we overcome them?

Year 9

Year 9 can be a tough year for Option Subjects as it is the year that students begin to consider what to take for GCSE. Often during this year the focus will being to shift more towards the core subjects. Students may start to switch off from subjects they are not taking for GCSE and this can be tough. It is also the end of the Key Stage and a time where there is a lot going on for students in Year 9.

At my school the students join us in Year 9. Every year I have the pressure of recruiting for GCSE. I teach them for about 4 months before the Options process starts. In that time I need to try and cover as much as I can.

Recruitment for GCSE is tough because there are often mis-conceptions about Who Can take GCSE Music and what is required. Misconceptions are important to tackle head on during lessons & any kind of Options Evening.

So one of the Pressures of teaching an Option Subject is that students will often rule themselves out based on the wrong information. As a teacher I then need to ensure that they are aware of the facts. The pressure also comes from the fact that you have to recruit in order to make your subject viable at GCSE. This is something that most departments don’t have to worry about. For Music in particular, we have to sell our subject to Year 9 and make sure that we get good numbers for GCSE. If we don’t secure the numbers then we will be unlikely to have the numbers for future A-level courses. This is a real and very genuine pressure for Music teachers.

Solutions to the Year 9 Pressure

It is clear that we are under pressure to recruit and I have mentioned some of the myths that surround GCSE Music. It is important that we address some of these issues so that students are well informed about the Options process:

  • Music GSCE is for everyone, not just the “talented” musicians with Grade 5!
  • Studying Music GCSE is not just about performing, but it is also about Composing & Analysing music.
  • There is theory in every subject, not just music, so don’t let the theory get in the way!
  • Over two years it is entirely possible to learn an instrument and play to a good standard.

There are lots of issues similar to this and we need to address them with our Year 9 students. Of course the other pressure for Option Subjects is that we often only teach 1, maybe 2 lessons per week. We have less contact time with the students and therefore less time to convince them to take our subject for GCSE. Battling against myths, time & misconceptions is tough, but there are ways of relieving the pressure.

Post Options Pressure

When the Options Process is complete, the pressure is still on because we have to keep teaching students who may not have opted for Music. This can be really hard in the summer months so I have 3 thoughts to help get through this:

  • Music is still Music and still beneficial and vital for students. This is even more the case if they are stopping it at the end of Year 9.
  • Some students are taking the GCSE, so teach such that they are ready and excited.
  • Save your best lessons until the Summer Term, that way everyone will enjoy that final term of Key Stage 3 Music.

A-Level Music

It goes without saying that the final year of GCSEs is crucial for those teaching working in Options Subjects. Delivering a strong curriculum that is relevant and engaging will help to ensure students want to continue to study music. But recruitment to A-Level puts us under even more pressure than GCSE. Some schools don’t run A-Level Music at all, and some will only run it if the numbers are high enough. It is so sad to see A-Level Music in decline across the country. I am glad that the ISM are continuing their work on Bacc for the Future.

I have a few ideas to help relieve this pressure, ideas that will hopefully support you with recruitment to A-Level. It isn’t easy, and context is important, but hopefully something might be of use to you.

  1. A-Level isn’t just for the top & elite performers. Target Grades for GCSE need to be considered as well as compositional skills & experience.
  2. A student can easily make progress over the two year course . They don’t have to be at the end of the journey before they have started.
  3. Recruitment will come down to selling the subject. So don’t put up barriers, but break them down. Inspire your Year 11 students, and put lots of effort into a great recruitment drive. Show them why they want to work with you for two years.
  4. Speak with individuals, answer questions and dispel any myths they might have.
  5. Don’t water down the A-level in an attempt to attract students – some like the academic side of things.

The Pressures of Teaching an Option Subject

The main source of pressure for Option Subject teachers is the reality that numbers do matter. If we want to run GCSE & A-level Music then we need students to opt for our subject. This is something that a Maths teacher doesn’t have to worry about. Now I am not having a go at Maths teachers, they have enough to worry about with fractions and formulas. But you know what I am saying, the numbers game is a pressure.

If we can tackle the issues it head on, in a strategic and practical way, then we can ensure that students opt for music. We can’t let the pressure get to us, it is something we need to embrace. Recognising the problems & pressures will mean that we can then come up with solutions. Because the thing is, we have to solve these issues. We need to not bow to the pressures, but embrace them and deal with them!

So next time you are teaching Year 9 or Year 11, think about the experience you are giving them. Consider what they might be thinking about their next steps. Look at any barriers that you are building and make sure that you are selling your subject. Work with SLT on strategy and makes sure that your Options Evenings are inspiring and exciting. Music is an amazing subject, something that is open to everyone. And whilst there is that pressure to get the numbers up and keep the subject alive, there are solutions. These solutions will help open the door to students studying music with us.


  1. The most pressing problem I feel we face when selling our subject is the amount of memorisation of facts about set works. This is what puts the students off year after year. If we replaced this memory test with a skills test of aurally identifying musical features in unheard works of varying styles I feel it would result in far higher numbers taking our subject and create truly educated musicians. I feel it’s time as teachers we stop asking what we need to do differently and demand a rethink of the examination system in our subject.

    1. This is an interesting point but I must say I never see set works as memorising facts. I like to teach the whole piece and ensure students learn in a variety of ways that aren’t just fact based. Plus the exam part is only 40%. But I take your point. I guess I wouldn’t want to see gcse or a level music watered down because then it won’t be taken seriously – it is a balancing act that one. Other subjects have stuff to learn and memorise. I am going to think about their further.

      1. I don’t teach it like that either ! but that is how they see it when it comes right down to it. Learning the key, specific instrumentation of each section as well as the features of multiple set works etc. They also report that other subjects don’t have to skill themselves to perform and compose as well. I have looked at other arts subjects to compare as well as other options subjects ( in home economics a levels for example ) and I can see were they are coming from. I’d love to see any comparative data on this if you come across any.

  2. Also to address to not been taken seriously point , i know what you are saying but I think the dramatically falling numbers for our subject kind of make that a slightly less important point. I want as many kids as possible skilling themselves relevantly to become life long participants in musical activity.

Leave a Reply