NEARLY half of all teenagers sitting GCSE maths failed to achieve a good grade and more than one in three struggled with English.
Provisional figures published this week show a record 5.66 million entries and the highest-ever proportion of GCSEs, 58 per cent, awarded a grade C or better. This represents a rise of 0.8 percentage points on last year.
The improvement was welcomed by the Government, which wants to see the proportion of pupils getting five Cs or better at GCSE improve from the current 50 per cent - by two percentage points each year. It must wait for figures in November to see if that target has been met this year.
But, amid the celebrations, a closer analysis of the figures shows worryingly poor performance in the vital core subjects. In maths, about 300,000 youngsters - 49 per cent - failed to get a C or better. A similar proportion in science did not clear the key C-grade hurdle. About 40 per cent achieved only a D or worse in English.
A good pass in maths and English is the minimum expected by employers. Companies and universities have complained that basic skills have deteriorated despite the yearly improvements in GCSE results.
The failure of thousands of young people to secure a good pass in these fundamental subjects will give added impetus to ministers' overhaul of secondary education.
Concerns about basic numeracy and literacy have put the teaching of core subjects at the top of the education policy agenda. Primary schools have been forced to concentrate on the 3Rs, exclusively at some points in the term.
At key stage 3, schools are using Government-devised frameworks for English and maths lessons to combat what have been dubbed the "lost years", where pupils in the early secondary years fail to improve or even go backwards. Booster classes this year focused on the two core subjects.
The 14 to 19 agenda, which allows flexibility at 14 so pupils can follow work-related courses, maintains English, maths and science at its centre. Ministers say the basic subjects are "essential to future progression".
Employers expressed their concern at the lack of improvement in basic subjects. Margaret Murray, head of learning and skills at the Confederation of British Industry, said: "Too many pupils still perform poorly in English and maths. Grade C or above in these subjects is becoming the threshold to employment. Employers are concerned that just under half of young people fail to achieve this standard."
The CBI called for ministers to set targets of more than three-quarters of young people to gain a grade C in English and over two-thirds in maths by 2006.
But John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "A grade C or above at GCSE is quite an achievement. The proportion who have achieved it has grown over the last 13 years but realistically you are not going to get everyone to grade C."
Part of the problem is the performance of boys. The gap between the proportions of boy and girl candidates getting C or better has increased slightly to 9 percentage points (see graph, opposite, top right). In English, however, the gap is a huge 15 percentage points.
Margaret Hodge, minister for lifelong learning, said the achievement gap between boys and girls remained unacceptable.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said boys were dragging down the results: "There is not a cat in hell's chance of significantly reducing the 40 per cent of results that are below grade C unless the boys raise their game."
Despite the apparent success of the GCSE exam - the Joint Council for General Qualifications - described it as a "solid, popular" qualification - heads are starting to question its continued usefulness.
The NAHT said there was no point having three exams between the ages of 15 and 18 if the vast majority stayed on after 16. It said the GCSE should become a modular part of a longer course. Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "The one-size-fits-all GCSE system has reached the end of its life and should be retired gracefully."
Full results at www.tes.co.uk
EARLY ENTRY SURGE
PRIMARY-age children are celebrating GCSE success as schools respond to the Government's enthusiasm for early entry.
The trend emerged as the Government's exam advisers said high-flier pupils should sit national tests at 13 rather than 14, effectively creating a two-year key stage 3.
Some 125,000 entries were from those aged 15 or younger this year. Department for Education and Skills figures show 60,600 students took at least one GCSE early in 2001. At Leicester Montessori grammar school, which has a tradition of early entry, pupils as young as 11 took maths GCSE.
At Dorothy Springer school in Brighton, more than half of the year nine pupils on a fast-track French course got A or A* at GCSE.
But fast-track pupils can cause problems. St Angela's Ursuline Convent school, Newham, London, is not putting its 26 15-year-olds who took maths GCSE early in for AS-level next year. Department head John Kelly said pupils would struggle to do full AS maths alongside other GCSEs. Instead, bright pupils will do one A2 maths module, giving them more free time in the sixth-form.
At Admiral Lord Nelson school in Plymouth, about 50 12-year-olds are on accelerated courses in maths, English and science, sitting national tests at 13, GCSEs at 15 and AS-levels at 16. Head Di Smith said: "These children gained level 5 (the level expected of the average 14-year-old) at primary school. We have to do something different with them."
A DFES spokeswoman said that future league tables may highlight schools'
record in early GCSE entries.