ONCE again, there were record GCSE results this week but, while more students achieved top grades, tens of thousands are still leaving school with nothing.
Although the overall pass rate increased, this year's improvement centred on A*-C grades, fuelling fears that schools are concentrating on borderline candidates to boost league-table positions.
League tables are compiled according to how many pupils achieve five or more A* to C grades. This controversial measure has prompted fears that students not expected to achieve this standard are being neglected.
The proportion of exam entries resulting in at least a C grade has risen steadily since GCSEs began in 1988. Then, only 42 per cent of results were Cs or better, compared to 56 per cent this year. The proportion of top A and A* grades has nearly doubled since 1988, when 8.4 per cent of entries were As, while 15 per cent were graded A or A* this year.
This year, 1.1 per cent more candidates obtained grades A*-C, while the pass-rate improved by 0.3 per cent.
However, this did not compensate for last year's big increase in the number of exams failed, which jumped from 1.5 to 2.3 per cent of entries. This year's rate dropped from 2.3 to 2 per cent, or 107,495 outright failures, which is still higher than the 1997.
A Qualifications and Curriculum Authority investigation into last year's failure rate concluded that it was mainly caused by a change in the way exam boards dealt with candidates who were absent for one paper of an examination. Whereas previously they would have been recorded as absent from the whole exam, they are now graded - in most cases as U because any missing papers count as zero.
The QCA also blamed schools for entering candidates for inappropriate papers in tiered GCSEs. This was particularly acute in maths, which had the highest failure rate last year.
More GCSE exams were sat this summer in line with a 1.1 per cent rise in the cohort of 16-year-olds, 5,374 751 this year compared to 5,353,095 last year.
Design and technology attracted 5.8 per cent more candidates, English literature gained 2.3 per cent, music 2.2 per cent, information technology 7.6 per cent, PE 6.1 per cent and religious studies 2 per cent. The biggest falls were seen in art, economics and business studies (see table).
Meanwhile, more lower-ability students are not being entered for any GCSEs at all. They can sit a certificate of achievement instead. The numbers sitting such tests leapt by nearly 25 per cent this year to 133,360.