RECORD NUMBERS of pupils celebrated their good results at GCSE yesterday, with nearly one in five entries gaining an A* or A and the proportion of exams graded at C or better rising for the 19th successive year.
Some 63.3 per cent achieved at least a C, an improvement of 0.9 percentage points on last year, annual figures showed. This means that the proportion gaining a C or above has risen by 50 per cent since the exam's introduction in 1988.
At the top end of the ability scale, 19.5 per cent of entries were awarded at least an A, up from last year's 19.1 per cent and more than double the 8.6 per cent who achieved the grade 20 years ago. The A*-G rate was broadly unchanged at 98 per cent.
The figures, which follow record A-level results last week, renewed the debate about whether standards are rising or falling.
Boys closed the performance gap on girls for the fifth successive year at A* C. It was their progress which led to the overall grades improvement. Results for boys rose by 1.2 points from 58.5 to 59.7 per cent, compared to the 0.6 point gain for girls (66.2 to 66.8 per cent).
The numbers opting for modern languages, as entries for French and German show, maintained their downward spiral. French fell by 8.2 per cent to 216,718, meaning that entries are down by more than 100,000 in the three years since the Government made languages optional at key stage 4.
For German, the trend was even more dramatic, a 10.2 per cent drop to 81,061, meaning the subject is in danger of being overtaken by Spanish as the second most popular language. Entries for Spanish rose by 3 per cent to 63,978.
English and maths results which are central to league tables since the rankings were changed to focus on these subjects brought mixed news.
In maths, the proportion of pupils achieving the crucial C threshold rose in line with the figure for all exams, by 0.9 points to 55.2 per cent. However, English rose by only 0.6 points, to 62.2 per cent.
In double science, the improvement at C or better was even less striking, rising only 0.3 points to 58.6 per cent, while the proportion of A* and A grades rose by only 0.1 to 14.7 per cent. However, this seems to be have been driven at least in part by some pupils, probably the more academic, opting for single sciences. Entries in biology rose by 5.2 per cent to 63,208; in chemistry by 4.3 per cent to 59,219; and in physics, by 4.2 per cent to 58,391.
The numbers taking history fell by 2 per cent, but the subject remains attractive to teenagers, with 227,854 taking it this summer. the subject also had the highest percentage achieving A* or A, at 29 per cent, of any large entry exam.
Two already popular subjects continued to attract more pupils, religious education pulling in an extra 7.2 per cent of entries to 171,123, while physical education gained 1.8 per cent to 155,625.
Entries for short-course GCSEs continued their recent upward trend, rising 6.5 per cent to 524,427. But there was a turn away from applied GCSEs; entries for the double award fell 7.7 per cent to 153,321.
The General National Vocational Qualification, which is being phased out in favour of applied GCSEs and other qualifications such as Btecs, also saw a slump in entries in this, its final year. Pass rates for GNVQ Intermediate information and communications technology, the most popular course, rose by five points to 86.2 per cent.
Earlier in the week, the Conservatives released figures showing the proportion of pupils achieving five or more passes at C or better, including English, maths, science and a foreign language, fell from 27.3 to 25.8 per cent over the period 1997-2006. However, the Government described the figures as "cheap spin", since modern languages have been optional since 2004.
Meanwhile, the Federation of Small Businesses said one in 10 firms were concerned about basic literacy and numeracy skills among school leavers, while others worried about their inability to turn up to work on time or dress smartly. This, it said, was a "national scandal".
Jim Knight, the schools minister, wrote an article released to the press which carried a note of weariness about the unending scrutiny of the figures. Headlined "Exam statistics are important, but they don't provide all the answers", it said "too often they are viewed as the only conclusive barometer of education policy". The emphasis on data, he said, often represented a missed opportunity for a more open debate on education policy.
Leading article, page 16