GCSE results: grade inflation comes to a halt for the first time in the qualification’s history

By William Stewart

Grade inflation took another pummelling this morning as the proportion of pupils gaining “good” and top GCSE grades fell for the first time in the qualification’s history.

Twenty-four years of continuous improvement ended as the proportions of entries gaining, A*, A*/A and A*-C grades all dropped. The decline will heap the pressure on schools struggling to meet ministers’ new “floor target” of 40 per cent of pupils achieving the five A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths.

Exam board heads, who explained away last week’s fall in top A level grades by citing a change in cohort, said this morning that the new GCSEs in English, maths and science accounted for part of this year’s overall decline.

But academics believe the shift is linked to education secretary Michael Gove’s rhetoric that grade inflation “discredits the integrity of our education system”. Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said: “The message that went out to exam boards [under Labour] was that grades should go up just a bit. Now the message is that we want standards to be maintained.”

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said changes to the content and assessment of GCSEs made it difficult to draw year-on-year comparisons: “Even a slight fall in the proportion of top grades will most emphatically not indicate a drop in standards,” he said.

Ministerial intervention appears to have had a clear impact in boosting the popularity of subjects included in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) league table measure.

The long term decline of modern foreign languages was instantly reversed in the first full year of the EBacc. Spanish was the big winner with a ten per cent rise in entries. French and German – which both saw 13.2 per cent falls last year – saw their decline arrested with 0.5 and 5.5 per cent entry drops respectively.

The EBacc humanities – geography and history – saw entries rise by 3.5 and 2 per cent. RE was not included in the measure but did not see the decline some might have expected, although its 7.7 per cent increase in entries was down from last year’s 17.6 per cent rise. English Literature, also left out of the EBacc, saw a sudden 4.5 per cent drop in entries.

In addition, girls maintained their performance lead on all grade measures overall.