Fran Abrams reports.
Under the circumstances, the headlines were predictable: "Record failure rate fuels exams row"; "School reforms slated as GCSE pass rate fails"; "Has the GCSE had its day?"
The occasion, of course, was the publication of this year's GCSE results and the revelation that the overall pass rate had dropped from 97.9 per cent last year to 97.6 per cent this year.
After years of steady progress, had the rises in attainment at 16 now stalled?
As long ago as 1996, the then opposition education spokesman David Blunkett, promised that under Labour all pupils would gain at least one GCSE by the age of 18. Another government pledge, it seemed, had bitten the dust.
A closer look at the results, though, reveals quite a different picture.
The proportion of A and A* grades continued to rise, from 16.5 per cent last year to 16.7 per cent this year, and the proportion of A*-C grades remained steady at 58.1 per cent. The drop in attainment was concentrated purely at the lower end of the scale. (We do not yet know how many pupils failed GCSE, only the number of exams that were failed.) This is good news for the parents of bright children, who are continuing to do better than ever. It is less good news, though, for those whose offspring are struggling. Has something changed to leave schools less well able to cater for them?
The answer may be strikingly simple. One thing that has changed this year is that new syllabuses have been introduced in every subject apart from English. According to exam officials, attainment always drops when such a change is made because it takes time for teachers to get used to the new material. They suggest the more able children might have been able to shrug off the disadvantage, while the less able might not. English, the one subject that did not undergo such a change, was the only academic national curriculum subject not to see a drop in pass rate.
This year's disappointing results should be regarded as an insignificant blip, according to Professor Pam Sammons of the University of London's Institute of Education. A drop of 0.3 per cent in the pass rate, she says, is tiny when placed against the advances of the past decade. While the proportion of A*-C grades has risen from 42 per cent in 1988 to 58 per cent today, the overall pass rate has not made such clear progress. It rose from 96.6 per cent in 1988 to a high of 98.6 per cent as long ago as 1997. Since then it has fluctuated slightly, dropping to 97.6 per cent this year.
Professor Sammons points to the results of a major international research project, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment study, which has tested the basic skills of 15-year-old pupils in 41 countries. The "long tail of underachievement" which dogged Britain for so many years has now disappeared, she argues. While one in 12 pupils used to leave school with no exam passes in the mid-nineties, the figure has now dropped to one in 20.
The Pisa researchers found that in literacy tests, there were just seven countries where the lowest-achieving pupils did better than Britain's least-able youngsters. While 13 per cent of British youngsters were at level one or less on a five-point scale, 23 per cent in Germany did equally badly. Other countries where the picture was less rosy than in Britain included the United States, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland.
Similar results were revealed in mathematics and science. Professor Sammons believes we should be celebrating our achievements rather than agonising about them.
"These international comparisons show we are doing well across the board," she said. "You are always going to have a small number at the bottom, special needs pupils or young people who become ill or suffer some personal trauma. The gap between our top and bottom pupils is not because the bottom are doing badly. It is because our most academic pupils are doing extremely well."
Professor Sammons argues it is far too soon to condemn the GCSE system for failing the least-able pupils. But, that said, the failure rate does not tell us the whole story. Far more worrying is the huge number who never make it into the exam room at all; who drop out before the end of compulsory education.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool, suggests a close look at the results for this year's maths GCSE could give us some clues to the wider picture. Maths, he says, has the biggest entry of any subject and schools are strongly encouraged to enter all pupils. Why, then, did more than 50,000 students in this year's cohort not take it?
The figures show 632,000 pupils reached 16 this year, but just 578,000 sat maths GCSE at school. In addition to the 54,000 apparently missing from the exam room, a further 23,700 took maths and failed. One might presume, Professor Smithers suggests, that few of those 77,700 students have left school with many useful exam passes.
Professor Smithers says these drop-outs are actually behaving quite rationally. Even if they could struggle to an F or a G grade in a couple of subjects, he says, what of it? Such low grades would never have helped them in the world of work, let alone in academia. Their only purpose would be to help fulfil the politicians' pledge that all students should get a GCSE.
"Frankly, if I could only get an F or a G grade I would be looking to spend my time in a different way. Why should I work my socks off for some bureaucrat who just wants to go off and tell other governments how many students have done this or that?"
The root of the problem, Professor Smithers says, is that the GCSE exam is not engaging those pupils whose talents may be practical rather than academic. The system needs a radical shake-up and a clearer vocational route for those students to take, he believes.
With Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, currently reviewing the whole of 14-19 education, the view that GCSE must be reformed is becoming increasingly prevalent.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, also feels a greater range of vocational courses would help students at the bottom of the heap.
He argues that the problem of underachievement is partly about money:
"Pupils are not being entered for exams because of a lack of resources.
These pupils need teaching in small classes, and in the current climate schools don't have the money to do that.
"The choice is that you can put on a small Latin class or put a second teacher in with a group at the lower end of the ability range. You make educational decisions on the basis both of what you believe to be right and of the pressures on your school."
George Turnbull, spokesman for the Joint Council for General Qualifications, pleads for calm. The drop in results, he points out, is only based on provisional figures and in any case might not be repeated next year. For some young people at the age of 16, qualifications are not necessarily the right way ahead," he said. "If a youngster hasn't made it within a school environment we should try to offer them something else.
"Every time the exam system is reformed, a few years later we start reforming the reforms until we're back where we started. The thing the exam system needs more than anything is stability."