The Government intends to review national targets for GCSE in an attempt to reduce the number of 16-year-olds leaving without qualifications.
This year's results show a slight increase in the percentage of higher-grade GCSEs, but ministers are keen to introduce targets designed to tackle the problem of fifth-formers who fail to take exams, and the slower rate of improvement in the D to G grades.
The exam boards view the 0.4 per cent improvement over last year in the proportion of entries awarded grades A* to C as steady improvement in the quality of papers. The proportion of entries awarded the higher grades has increased in every year since GCSE replaced O-level in 1988, but the rate of improvement has slowed.
Overall, 98.5 per cent of entries achieved a G grade or better, the same proportion as in the previous year. In the main subject areas, the proportion of higher grades showed most improvement in maths - an increase of 0.6 per cent to 47.3 per cent. The proportion of higher grades in English went down by 0.8 per cent.
The number of entries declined by 1.1 per cent to 5,415,176, reflecting the 1.3 per cent decline in the 15-year-old population.
According to Katherine Tattersall, secretary to the Joint Council for the GCSE, the examination boards are confident that the grades accurately reflect the achievement of candidates.
"The Government keeps the national exam system under review, but press reports that the exam boards are pressing for changes in the grades are not based on the views of the chief executives of the boards. We are confident the grading is appropriate," she said.
The results for 1997 show a decline in the numbers entered for English and the dominance of combined courses over the separate sciences of physics, maths and biology. According to Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, the 1 per cent drop in English entries may reflect the demise of coursework as a major part of the assessment.
Last year's results appeared to show a shift back to the separate sciences, but that has been reversed in the latest figures.
The most dramatic decline has been in the numbers entered for French, which show a 5 per cent drop over 1996. The figures may reflect a decision by schools to enter pupils for the short courses in French, equivalent to half a GCSE.
In total, there were only 30,683 entries for first short courses to be examined since they began in 1995. Of those, 12,244 were in religious education and 1,538 in French. The other popular half courses were design and technology (5,064) and information technology (7621).
The largest increase in entries for full GCSEs were for exams in information systemscomputing (15 per cent) and home economics (7.6 per cent).
The junior education and employment minister, Kim Howells, paid tribute to GCSE candidates and those completing the pilot part one GNVQ. He said: "I am particularly pleased to see higher overall improvement in crucial science and maths subjects and a 15 per cent increase in information systemcomputing".
The Government has already set national targets for 11-year-olds in English and maths. A consultation paper is planned for early September which will set out proposals for new GCSE targets which focus on more than the proportion of pupils achieving five or more higher grade GCSEs. Ministers are keen thatYear 11 pupils who in previous years left at Easter achieve qualifications.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, criticised the emphasis on A-C grades at the expense of the less able. He claims that a significant number of candidates achieved no grades at all.
"We have, therefore, the ironic position that the Government's obsession with the more able candidates is damaging the least able, thereby contributing to the growth of the underclass or the socially excluded, who Labour is now urgently seeking to rescue." Mr Hart called for the introduction of a points system for GCSE results so that all grades were credited.