THE FAILURE rate for GCSEs has risen in this week's results, leading to renewed accusations that schools are ignoring weaker pupils in order to concentrate on high-flyers.
The number of pupils reaching the top grades, A*-C, has risen to record levels, and there has been a notable increase in the proportion reaching the very highest A* mark, first introduced in 1994.
But the numbers getting nothing at all from their exams has increased from 1.5 to 2.3 per cent of the entries, or 81,228 outright failures. Meanwhile the numbers achieving the lower grades, D-G, has fallen.
The results will help fuel criticism that schools are concentrating on top pupils in response to league tables of results - which are compiled according to how many pupils reach grade C.
One alternative explanation for the high failure rate is that, for the first time, 16-year-olds have been barred from leaving school at Easter, pushing them into exams they would not otherwise have taken.
This could also explain the high entry rate. The total for full courses and short courses increased by 2.1 per cent even though the age group dropped by 1.7 per cent.
The Government's examinations quango, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, has promised an investigation. "The fall in the number achieving grade G is a cause for concern," said a spokeswoman.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "There is no escaping the fact that the gap between the majority who are achieving very good results and the small minority who have nothing to show for their efforts is getting wider.
"Performance tables in their current form are damaging the educational health of low achievers."
This autumn for the first time, the performance tables will include a total GCSE points score for each school (where A*=8 and G=1). This should give schools some credit for helping the lower achievers.
"The Government needs to underline that all the levels of pass are realistic grades for some pupils," said Professor Alan Smithers, from the centre for education and employment research at Liverpool University.
However the number of passes at A*-C will continue to be the main factor in the performance charts and will form the basis of the Government's national GCSE targets, to be set later this year.
Professor Tim Brighouse, a key member of the standards task force and chief education officer in Birmingham, has already urged ministers to ensure that they reward schools for the full range of their results.
Broadly speaking this summer's results follow the pattern of last year's. This year's proportion reaching top grades rose by only 0.4 per cent.
The latest results have been based on entirely new syllabuses. This summer has also seen the first major entries for GCSE short courses, RE, design and technology and information technology in particular.