The proportion of "good" GCSE grades has increased for the first time in three years, with the rise attributed to a clampdown on early and multiple entries.
After 23 years of steady increases, the proportion of students achieving A*-C grades fell over the past two years. But in this year's results, published yesterday, the A*-C pass rate rose from 68.1 per cent to 68.8 per cent, although the proportion of A* grades dropped by 0.1 per cent to 6.7 per cent. The cumulative proportion of A* and A grades remained steady at 21.3 per cent.
Among 15-year-old students sitting exams a year early, the A*-C pass rate increased by more than 10 percentage points.
Individual schools, however, reported unexpected swings in results, particularly in English and maths, vindicating fears of volatility despite a relatively calm national picture.
Woodside High School in North London reported a drop of 18 percentage points in the proportion of students achieving A*-C grades in English. Headteacher Dame Joan McVittie said that, as a result, the proportion of students hitting the performance measure of five A*-C grades including English and maths had dropped from 62 per cent to 45 per cent; the Department for Education is raising the floor standard to 50 per cent from next year.
Dame Joan blamed the drop on changes to grade boundaries, affecting students around the C-D borderline. "We're absolutely furious," she added.
The government's decision to scrap resits and only count a student's first sitting of an exam in school performance tables led to the overall number of GCSEs taken this summer falling by more than 220,000.
Last year, the Department for Education claimed that schools were increasingly "gaming the system" by encouraging early and multiple entries, resulting in students having to sit more exams than necessary, which was "not good for pupils".
The change had an immediate impact on entry patterns. Although some subjects, such as ICT, computing and business studies, recorded significant growth, the number of English entries dropped by more than 215,000. The effect on the cohort of 15-year-olds was most marked, with a massive 76 per cent decrease in the number of early maths entries, from 170,357 to 39,292. Overall, the number of entries by students in Year 10 and below fell by almost 40 per cent.
Results in English were also affected by a change in assessment, with speaking and listening not counted in students' overall results and the written exams making up a greater proportion of the total mark. The A*-C pass rate in the subject dipped from 63.6 per cent to 61.7 per cent.
Entries were also down in science subjects for the first time in more than a decade, with the number of pupils sitting GCSE science falling by 16.9 per cent. The drop was even more pronounced among 15-year-olds, at 34.4 per cent. However, overall results in the subject improved, with the A*-C pass rate rising from 53.1 per cent to 59.1 per cent. In maths, the proportion of A*-C passes increased from 57.6 per cent to 62.4 per cent.
Although there was a decline in the number of younger students entered for exams, the results of those who did sit GCSEs early were significantly higher. The A*-C pass rate among 15-year-olds across all subjects rocketed from 58.1 per cent last year to 68.2 per cent. The proportion of As and A*s among the younger age group also rose from 14.2 per cent to 19.2 per cent.
The Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents the main exam boards, said overall results were "relatively stable". "Where the change in entry patterns is greatest, such as the sciences, English and maths, we have seen some impact on results," said director general Michael Turner. "But despite these changes and the potential for increased centre volatility, candidates can be confident that standards have been maintained."
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said members had reported significant declines in results. "Some schools have had some surprises which they certainly didn't want," he said. "English is the main one, and we're also hearing about some surprises in maths."
Another turbulent year for GCSE English
Just two years after GCSE English hit the headlines, the subject has become the centre of attention once more. Even before results were published, the series of changes that came into effect this year prompted warnings from exam boards that schools should brace themselves for "volatility".
For the first time, speaking and listening assessments do not count towards the overall grade, with students instead receiving a separate level on their certificate. There has also been a move towards end-of-course assessment, with written exams making up 60 per cent of marks and controlled assessment totalling 40 per cent.
The Joint Council for Qualifications predicted that "these two changes are likely to affect students and schools in different ways, depending on their relative strengths".
Dame Joan McVittie, a former president of the Association of School and College Leaders, told TES that her school, Woodside High in North London, had been seriously affected. The proportion of its students achieving a grade C or better in English fell from 70 per cent last year to 52 per cent. The results, Dame Joan said, were out of kilter with what many students had been predicted to achieve.
"We have lots of [English as an additional language] kids struggling to get a grade C," she said. "They move the grade boundary quite significantly, and take out a lot of my kids.
"Our overall results are now below the floor target [of 50 per cent, due to be introduced next year] and it's all down to English. The kids are going to be distraught."
In 2012, a late decision to raise the English grade boundaries led to outcry. After a coalition of school leaders, teaching unions and councils came together to fight the decision in a bid to raise the marks of 50,000 students, the case ended up being settled in the High Court court. It was eventually ruled that there had been no "unlawful action" by Ofqual or the exam boards.