THE official GCSE pass rate has fallen to its lowest level for more than 10 years, provisional figures released this week have revealed.
Behind this year's results lies a growing polarisation in the performance of the nation's 16-year-olds: more pupils may be gaining A* and A grades but the proportion who fail is the highest since 1992.
The proportion of entries graded C or better rose slightly, from 57.9 to 58.1 per cent, the highest figure ever, while the percentage awarded A* or A increased from 16.4 to 16.7 per cent, another record. There was also a record number of entries, at 5.7 million.
But the proportion who passed - getting grade G or better - fell from 97.9 to 97.6 per cent. This meant the proportion of U grades rose from 2.1 to 2.4 per cent.
Academics and union leaders warned that the figures were further evidence that thousands of youngsters were being let down by the qualifications system. Many blamed the pressure of league tables, which encourages schools to focus on borderline CD grade candidates at the expense of those at the bottom of the pile.
Up to last year, the proportion of U grades had remained unchanged, at 2.1 per cent, since 1999. In 1992, it was 1.4 per cent.
Some observers argue grades D to G are no longer worth much. But ministers have pledged to raise the proportion of youngsters who pass. They have a target that 92 per cent of 16-year-olds should get at least five Gs by next year. Last year, the figure was 87.1 per cent, only 0.2 per cent up on the previous year.
Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool university, said the figures reflected the fact that thousands of less academic pupils were being turned off GCSEs without being given a credible vocational alternative. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said:
"If schools are having to concentrate their efforts on getting more and more pupils into the A to C category, it's possible that students who do not have a cat in hell's chance of getting a C grade are losing out."
In an apparent broadening of exam choices, youngsters are increasingly opting for subjects such as religious studies, where numbers rose by nearly 10,000 and business studies, instead of modern languages, which appear to be suffering (see below).
The numbers taking General National Vocational Qualifications jumped again this year, with entries at intermediate level up 42 per cent to 94,017, and those for the vocational information technology course doubling to 45,612.
Intermediate GNVQs are worth four GCSEs at A* to C, and some have suggested that schools put pupils on such courses simply to boost their league-table positions.
Ministers will be alarmed at the fall in the percentage of pupils getting a C or better in maths, to 50.2 per cent. But there was some good news on the gender gap: the difference between the proportion of boys and girls getting A* to C, shrank by 0.2 percentage points.
Charles Clarke, Education Secretary, welcomed the "steady growth" in the proportion getting a C or better, but said the Government still faced "real challenges", including improving grades in maths and languages.
The results will heighten pressure on the Government to help the "underclass" leaving school with few qualifications. The increase in the number of entries overall is broadly in line with the rise in pupil numbers, suggesting the rise in U grades is not simply a result of less able pupils doing more GCSEs.
Inspectors have highlighted the 10,000 14 and 15-year-olds who go "missing" from the school system every year. Last year, 5.4 per cent of 16-year-olds in England, or more than 30,000, left school with no GCSEs - just 0.1 points lower than 2000. Damian Green, shadow education secretary, said:
"The gap between the best and the worst is widening under Labour."