Grade inflation took another pummelling yesterday as the proportion of GCSE entries achieving "good" and top grades fell for the first time in the qualification's history.
Twenty-four years of continuous improvement ended as the percentages of entries gaining A*, A*A and A*-C grades all dropped. The decline will increase the pressure on schools struggling to meet ministers' new "floor target" of 40 per cent of pupils achieving five A*-C GCSEs, including English and maths.
Exam board heads, who explained away last week's fall in top A-level grades by citing a change in cohort, were expected to say that new GCSEs in English, maths and science accounted for this week's overall decline.
But academics believe the shift is linked to education secretary Michael Gove's rhetoric that grade inflation "discredits the integrity of our education system". Professor Alan Smithers, from the University of Buckingham, said: "The message that went out to exam boards (under Labour) was that grades should go up just a bit. Now the message is that we want standards to be maintained."
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said changes to the content and assessment of GCSEs made it difficult to draw year-on-year comparisons: "Even a slight fall in the proportion of top grades will most emphatically not indicate a drop in standards," he said.
But Mr Gove said in June that GCSEs were "losing their value" and he is expected to propose replacement qualifications this autumn.
Ministerial intervention appears to have had a clear impact in boosting the popularity of subjects included in the English Baccalaureate (EBac) league table measure.
The long-term decline of modern foreign languages was instantly reversed in the first full year of the EBac. Spanish was the big winner, with a 10.0 per cent rise in entries. French and German, which both saw 13.2 per cent falls last year, saw their decline arrested with 0.5 per cent and 5.5 per cent entry drops respectively.
The EBac humanities - geography and history - saw entries rise by 3.5 per cent and 2.0 per cent. RE was not included in the measure, but the subject did not see the decline some might have expected, although its 7.7 per cent increase in entries was down from last year's 17.6 per cent rise. English literature, also left out of the EBac, saw a sudden 4.5 per cent drop in entries.
Overall, girls maintained their performance lead on all grade measures. They also outperformed boys on A* and A grades in biology, chemistry and physics, subjects in which girls are also closing the gender gap in entries.
The UK's overall GCSE pass rate rose for the fifth year in succession. Northern Ireland finished top of the three individual nations at A*, A*A and A*-C categories, and bucked the national trend with increases on all three measures. Wales finished bottom again, and like England declined on all three measures.
Some schools have already argued that the sudden absence of grade inflation means the system is "corrupt".
This year's new science GCSE is acknowledged to be tougher than its predecessor. But the explanation for falling top grades in English and maths was expected to concentrate on the change in entry patterns that the new qualifications triggered.
In English the boards suggested that a new specification meant that some lower-ability candidates who would historically have taken the exam in winter this year opted to take it in the summer.
In maths there was a 12.6 per cent drop in entries this summer as many pupils took up a final opportunity to sit the old maths GCSE in March. But none of this explains falling grades in other GCSEs such as history and ICT.
Results are now partially pegged to pupil performance in previous years. Exam board insiders have also revealed that this year in meetings with Ofqual, the exam regulator, they were told to err on the conservative side when decisions on grade boundaries were split.
Last week, Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA board, insisted that he had not been "leant on" to grade exams more harshly, but said: "It is impossible to say that someone, somewhere hasn't been influenced by what they have read."
ONE FOR THE WHIZZES
A unique "A* with distinction" grade has made a further maths qualification easily the most popular of an exam board's new IGCSEs.
Of the 4,740 pupils taking the AQA exam this year, 9 per cent achieved the super-super grade, designed to provide "greater stretch to the very brightest mathematicians".
Another 19 per cent achieved an A*, a further quarter of entries managed a mere A and 93 per cent earned a C or above.
The exam made up 59 per cent of entries to the three IGCSEs the board offered this year.
Original headline: Pressure mounts as `good' GCSE grades drop for the first time