Big rise in top grades but fears over weaker candidates

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The Independent Online

GCSE results out today show a dramatic rise in A* to C-grade passes - up 1.1 percentage points to 59.2 per cent.

GCSE results out today show a dramatic rise in A* to C-grade passes - up 1.1 percentage points to 59.2 per cent.

The increase achieved by the 650,000 teenagers who will be receiving their results this morning is five times higher than last year when it was just 0.2 of a percentage point.

But the overall pass rate remains exactly the same at 97.6 per cent - leading to claims that the gap between top performing pupils and those lower down the scale is widening.

Last night praise for the rise in top-grade passes was coupled with concern that more needed to be done to improve the performance of weaker candidates - particularly boys.

Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, called for renewed government efforts to eradicate the "scandal" of low literacy and numeracy levels. "More young people are getting higher grades and I have nothing but praise for them and their hard-working teachers who have achieved this," he said. "But that must not hide the fact that a large number of young people, particularly boys, are being left behind."

He highlighted the fact that only 51 per cent of boys and 53 per cent of girls obtained C-grade passes in maths as well as English as "cause for concern".

Exam boards immediately seized on the figures to claim that urgent action was needed to improve the performance of boys. They said the gender gap in results had remained stubbornly stable for eight years despite government initiatives to improve boys' results.

The figures show the overall gap in the pass rate is 0.8 of a percentage point - the same as last year. The gap in A* and A-grade passes has also remained the same at 1.9 points.

However, boys have narrowed the gap in A* to C-grade passes from 8.8 percentage points to 8.4 points.

They have narrowed the gap in English from 15.2 points to 14.4 points, but the gap has grown in maths, from 0.3 to 0.6 points.

Ellie Johnson Searle, director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, which represents exam boards, said: "The evidence of boys fighting back against the girls at A-level is not replicated at GCSE.

"Indeed, when we look at the total school population at GCSE, there is no evidence either this year or over the past seven that the gap is narrowing." She called on Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools who is heading a government inquiry into exam reform, to make urgent recommendations to improve the performance of boys when he publishes his final report in October.

David Miliband, the minister for School Standards, said: "Boys are catching up but there is still work to be done."

Meanwhile, fears were being expressed over the drop in the number of pupils opting for French and German - the two subjects which faced the biggest fall in the number of candidates, 3.9 per cent and 2.9 per cent respectively. This year's cohort is the first to sit GCSEs since the Government announced it was making the subject voluntary for 14 to 16-year-olds. Although the changeover does not come into effect until this September, many schools jumped the gun and began to ignore the subject. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "The decrease in the number of entries at GCSE in French and German is worrying but represents a trend that will become very much worse in 2005 and 2006 as the government decision takes effect."