The first fall in top-grade passes in the history of the GCSE exam was revealed yesterday, prompting claims that exam boards acted immorally by raising grade boundaries at the last moment.
Figures show the number of candidates achieving five A* to C grade passes dropped by 0.4 percentage points to 69.4 per cent – the first time the figure had fallen since the exam was first sat in 1988. The proportion obtaining A* or A grade passes also fell from 23.2 per cent to 22.4 per cent.
The drop follows a similar fall at A-level last week at a time when exam boards face pressure from both the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, and Ofqual, the exams regulator, to end grade inflation. Exam boards said the main reason for the decline was the introduction of a tougher syllabus for GCSE science, which saw A* to C grades drop by 2.2 percentage points to 60.7 per cent.
Last night Mr Gove denied there had been any political interference, saying: "The decision about where to set grade boundaries is made by exam boards."
But the boards admitted they had changed the grade boundaries in some English GCSE units and other subjects. They pointed out that candidates in maths, English and science were sitting new syllabuses for the first time. The changes are understood to have been made after it emerged that those sitting the exam early in winter were getting higher grades than expected.
The boards have been told by Ofqual that they should curb grade inflation and keep the pass rate at roughly the same as last year.
The most fury was reserved for a drop in the English pass rate. Heads and teachers said the boundary for a C grade pass had risen by as much as 10 marks (64 instead of 54 out of 100). The change will mean thousands of students are likely to miss out on sixth-form or college places, and it could also lead to the closure of scores of schools for under-performing.
"It is morally wrong to manipulate exam grades in this way – you are playing with young people's futures," said Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. "Students who were working at a C level throughout the year who were told on their assessments they were in line for a C have found out today that this is worth a D."
Mike Griffiths, the head of Northampton School for Boys, said his school had seen a 12 per cent drop in the number expected to get A* to C grade passes in English. "We need to look at the whole thing carefully and perhaps carry out an inquiry to find out what happened," he said.