Official figures published today show a major fall in the percentage of pupils achieving the main GCSE benchmark for the first time since records began nearly two decades ago.
The drop, predicted by TES last week, means the proportion of candidates gaining five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths (5ACEM) has fallen by 6.6 percentage points, from 59.2 to 52.6 per cent.
The Department for Education is stressing that much of the change is down to its decisions to allow only a pupil's first entry to a GCSE to count in the measure and to limit the worth of each vocational qualification to just one GCSE in the league table.
But the statistics still show a 3.2 percentage point drop even when these two factors are accounted for. Headteachers' leaders say the most disadvantaged pupils have been hit hardest and claim that the public are losing confidence in the exams system.
Today’s figures are likely to mean more secondaries have been pulled below the official 40 per cent 5ACEM floor target, leaving them open to government intervention, take-over and ultimately closure.
School reform minister Nick Gibb today acknowledged that for some schools the results “may represent a fall or be lower than they expected”.
But he argued that there were “virtues” in the plummeting pass rate, because it was partly explained by changes to ensure that qualifications were “of the highest possible quality” and “inspire confidence among universities and employers".
Other changes that are likely to have hit results are the move from modular to linear GCSEs and the decision to stop speaking and listening counting towards GCSE English grades.
Records for the 5ACEM measure go back to the 1995-96 academic year and have shown a continuous rise ever since, apart from two tiny 0.2 percentage point drops in 2012-13 and 2002-03.
When state-funded schools only are considered, this year’s results are also significantly down on the measure, from 60.6 to 55.9 per cent. The independent sector has seen its score nearly halve from 54.4 per cent to 28.5 per cent, mainly owing to its use of unregulated IGCSEs.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is the government’s changes to the exam system that have led to the drop in results this year. It is not a reflection of the quality of teaching nor the amount of effort and hard work put in by students.
“Our qualifications system must be trusted. This year the opposite is happening. We are seeing a worrying drop in confidence in exams. Students and teachers are struggling to understand this year’s results.
“We believe the most disadvantaged students have been hit hardest. This cannot be in anyone’s interest.”
The figures, which are also broken down into individual local authorities, show that Knowsley in Merseyside is bottom by a considerable distance, with just 34.4 per cent of pupils achieving 5ACEM. Blackpool is next at 43.2 per cent, highlighting a trend of low performance in seaside towns.
Nottingham, Bradford and Hull, all long-term residents at the lower end of the table, come next. The Isles of Scilly and Kensington and Chelsea in London finished top.
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