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The good news is we have a story

Anthropologists would have a field day if they camped out in school halls while the GCSE results are handed out. The behaviour patterns are fascinating. The girls open their envelopes in small groups and celebrate or commiserate noisily and publicly.

The boys shuffle off singly into quiet corners, open their envelopes furtively, and respond with an almost imperceptible shrug of modest acceptance or grimace of disappointment.

These days, of course, act two of this drama is conducted via the ubiquitous mobile phone as the news is relayed to anxious parents.

Each year as I accompany a film crew to record students receiving their GCSE results, I find the experience a useful antidote to the journalistic weariness that can creep into this hardy perennial in the news calendar.

As the results come out in August, a traditionally quiet time for news, they are guaranteed big media coverage. Yet as the GCSE moves into a less controversial middle-age it no longer justifies the attention it receives. Yet news-desks demand "a story". In pursuit of that story it is easy to forget that for most people the day is about individual triumph or disappointment.

This year, with no major changes to the GCSE, the search for a news "angle" looked likely to be more desperate than ever. At its news conference, the Joint Council for the GCSE, unaware that the best way to keep the media off one story is to give them another, played the straightest bat since Boycott retired from Test cricket.

The statistics showed that the pass rate for grade C and above had improved by 0.3 per cent. So it was a "good news" story. But wait a minute. The proportion of entries failing to score even a G was also up, by 0.8 per cent. So was it a bad news story after all?

In fact, most of the media went for a combination of the two, focusing on the widening gap between top and bottom. To everyone's relief a new "angle" had been found. No one stopped to ask whether such tiny changes in the pass rates were statistically significant.

So, how did the national newspapers treat the story? The Times was the only one to make it the front-page lead under the headline: "Exam failures add to fears of underclass". It reported that "the number of failures rose by more than 50 per cent". Factually correct, of course, but somehow less dramatic when you realise that 50 per cent jump meant the failure rate had grown from just 1.5 per cent to 2.3 per cent.

The Mirror took a similar line. Under the punchy headline "Have you flunked it, Mr Blunkett?" it warned "failure rate rockets by over 50 per cent". The Guardian also highlighted the increase in the failure rate under the headline "Rising number of pupils fail exams".

Surprisingly, while these newspapers' headlines had focused on the bad news, two other newspapers which had in the past been critical of the GCSE went for the more balanced story of the "widening gap" between top and bottom.

The Sun opted for "Learning Gap: Teachers put brainy kids first to boost exam passes". But, perhaps surprisingly, The Daily Mail took the prize for the most moderate and balanced headline with its "Top grades up, but so is the rate of failure".

Could this be right? The Daily Mail highlighting the success of the GCSE? There was an echo of its more usual approach in its double page spread on "The great GCSE debate". This asked whether today's pupils took "a simpler exam than their parents?". Yet, overall it seemed the Mail's heart was no longer in bashing the GCSE.

Equally noteworthy was The Daily Telegraph, another newspaper which used to lament the passing of O-levels. It had the most upbeat headline of all: "GCSE marks 10th anniversary with record results". However there was a gently inserted sceptical note in education editor John Clare's aside that the 37 per cent increase in standards since 1987 is "a phenomenon thought to be without precedent in the history of examining".

Overall it seems this year marked a turning-point for the GCSE. After 10 years, the media's hostility to the new examination could be over. This may be because news-desks are bored with the "pass rates up, standards must be down" approach. Or could it be that many editors have children who have now either taken or are about to take their own GCSEs?

As individual results became known, a new, irresistible, story emerged. The Evening Standard put it simply: "Boy aged 6 passes GCSE". The next day his smiling face was on several front pages.

I tried to resist, but some stories are bigger than any of us, and nine seconds of Krishan Radia (dressed by the photographers in mortar-board and spectacles) had to be added onto the end of my report for the Six O'clock News. Serious journalism? Oh well, you can't win them all.

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent

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