Attainment gap mars yet another record year for GCSE results

27th August 2010 at 01:00
Amid celebrations in schools - and Whitehall corridors - for the near-quarter of students who achieved top grades, worries persist about the performance of poorer pupils, and the slump in language learning. William Stewart reports

The gcse pass rate has risen for the 23rd year in a row, with record numbers of top grades and around one in 10 pupils taking English and maths a year early.

Ministers celebrated the success that saw the overall proportion of entries gaining at least a C rise by two percentage points to 69.1 per cent.

But they said more needed to be done to close the "attainment gap" between pupils from the poorest and wealthiest backgrounds.

The proportion of A*-C grades in English rose to 64.7 per cent and to 58.4 per cent in maths. Overall, some 22 per cent of entries were awarded AA* grades.

There was also a huge increase in the number of pupils taking the core subjects a year early.

In maths, 10.9 per cent of entries were from 15-year-olds or younger, with 9.5 per cent of entries in English coming from pupils under 16.

Heads' leaders said the phenomenon could be partially explained by the end of national tests for 14-year-olds, which allowed schools to compress key stage 3 into two years and extend key stage 4 into three.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said a "few" schools could be entering pupils early to give them an extra chance if they failed, but that more would be employing the tactic to allow them to take AS-levels in Year 11.

"Schools are working hard to stretch their most able students and make sure that they have the opportunity to gain as many qualifications as possible," he said.

The results show girls are pulling further ahead of boys, continuing the trend of the last two decades.

This year, 25.5 per cent of girls' entries were awarded at least an A, compared to 19.5 per cent of boys' entries - widening the gap to 6 percentage points. In 1989 it was just 1.5.

But boys outperformed girls in maths for the second year running, as well as doing better in economics and physics. It is also expected that the scrapping of coursework in favour of "controlled assessment" will benefit boys in future years.

The decline in the number of pupils taking foreign language GCSEs, prompted by them being dropped from the compulsory national curriculum, continued.

Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA exam board, noted that French had dropped out of the top 10 most popular subjects for the first time "in living memory". He said less than one in 10 pupils now studied German or Spanish.

French had around 11,000 fewer entries, a drop of 5.9 per cent on last year. German was down by 4.5 per cent, but Spanish was up slightly by 0.9 per cent.

Brian Lightman, incoming ASCL general secretary, said: "If we are to reverse the trend, both the Government and business leaders must do more to stress the importance of learning languages.

"In the case of science and maths, employers said they wanted more graduates with these qualifications and students responded. If major employers gave the same message about languages it could well have the same effect."

Mary Bousted, Association of Teachers and Lecturers general secretary, praised students for their results, but said the Government needed to take urgent action to make sure all children reached their potential.

"The experience in the classroom of our members is that, irrespective of achievement, students are turned off by the exam culture dictated from on high," she said.

"To succeed in education, work and life, young people need to develop useful and transferable skills, which an over-packed curriculum focused on passing tests does not provide."

Nick Gibb, schools minister, said: "While celebrating individual success and welcoming the fact that there has been an enormous take-up of GCSEs in the individual sciences, we believe that more needs to be done to close the attainment gap between those from the poorest and wealthiest backgrounds.

"The continued success of academies in some of the most challenging areas of the country shows what can be done."

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