Win some, lose some
The first impression is that the continuing improvement in the success rate reflects almost as much credit on the Government's policies as it does on the hard work and commitment of the teachers and young people immediately responsible for the achievement. These pupils have had the benefits of the national curriculum and regular testing throughout their secondary careers, raising expectations and focusing application across a broad front as they were swept through to the official school-leaving hurdle.
Beyond that, real trends are more elusive. Although the total entry for the 1996 GCSE examination has risen by 1.1 per cent, that is not as large as the 3.1 per cent rise in the 16-year-old population. Is that because some children are not being put in for as many subjects as last year - which may be a sensible choice - or because an increasing number of weaker candidates are hardly being put in for any at all, in order to boost the school's pass rate and public image?
There is anecdotal evidence to support the latter interpretation, and a growing conviction in some parts of the country that both national curriculum and GCSE are dangerously inappropriate for a sizeable minority of disaffected youngsters. This is a view shared by Sir Ron Dearing, the man who as chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is responsible for administering both, but who used his review of 16-19 qualifications to propose more palatable alternatives for disaffected 14-year-olds.
Like David Hart and John Dunford of the head teacher organisations, he sees the value of a 14 - 19 continuum on qualifications, but can be in little doubt that no government is going to remove it in a hurry, however redundant.
Within the entry totals there are more puzzles and trends to unpick. What exactly, for example, is happening to science? Entries and pass rates are up, which could mean that at long last its core subject status is paying off. But the increase doesn't quite match the demographic trend, so maybe the subject is no more than holding its own. And why have the biggest increases come in biology, chemistry and physics, rather than just in the combined science which is supposed to be replacing them? It doesn't seem likely that all the increase can have come in the independent schools which have stuck up most vigorously for the separate sciences, so we need to know more about what is happening there as well as whether any real boost will carry through post-16 in two years' time.
Some switches in Government policies seem to be showing up with remarkable speed in the results, for good or ill. Most noticeable here has been the effect of loosening up the key stage 4 curriculum leading up to GCSE, particularly for technology. This poor tortured subject has been through so many fundamental changes in such a short space of time that it was not an obligatory course of study for this year, and many schools have thankfully reverted to the separate subjects like home economics and business studies in which they felt more confident, decisions reflected in their students' entries.
Another aspect of the greater choice at key stage 4 has been that subjects are beginning to find their own level of popularity again. Modern languages - no longer obligatory as a full course - are holding their own, with German and Spanish both on the increase. Religious studies are well up, so are art and music, and geography is holding steady but history, down by more than 5 per cent, is a casualty. Is it teaching, the curriculum, or just fashion? History teachers will need to find out.
One thing which isn't in question is that the tedious debate about standards ought to be irrelevant, particularly in view of the increased scrutiny by SCAA and the Office for Standards in Education. What we do need to concentrate our minds on is whether we need an external examination at 16 at all, given the importance of continuing education and training until at least 18, and how to rescue those who aren't taking it anyway. That needs to be done for their own sake and for the nation's too. They may not show up in our own exam tables, but that long tail of non-achievers certainly depresses our performance in international tables.