First, this year's apparent drop is not a one-off. Between 1993 and 1995, the number of 16-year-olds rose by 10 per cent, while the number of exams taken fell by 1.1 per cent.
Second, the brightest pupils are doing better than ever at GCSE, while those at the bottom end of the scale are hardly improving at all. The number gaining five or more A-C grades has risen by 5 percentage points in the past three years, to 43.5 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion leaving school without any GCSEs rose slightly in 1994 and 1995, to 8 per cent, after dropping to 7 per cent in 1993.
Could these two facts be linked?
Although government officials have denied that schools can cheat the league tables by withdrawing pupils - the tables include all children on the roll the previous year - many commentators believe that schools may be concentrating their efforts on students who are likely to get five or more A-C grades.
Alan Smithers, professor of public policy at the University of Brunel, says: "The fact that they are counting the results in this way is causing our very pragmatic and sensible teachers to allocate their resources accordingly, to the disadvantage of pupils who are already let down by the education system." But he adds that this is not the whole story. Schools may be tightening their purse strings - a large comprehensive can spend pounds 50,000 a year on exam entries - and only putting students in for subjects that they are certain to pass. Also, and possibly quite importantly, a drop in the number of 17-year-olds taking GCSE resits may have led to a drop in the entry.
But that stubborn 8 per cent of pupils who never get anything remains. Professor Smithers believes that a few simple measures could make a difference. Primary schools should concentrate on getting all pupils up to a set standard of literacy and numeracy; and a failure to do so should be seen as a failure of the teacher rather than of the child. Secondary schools, meanwhile, should seek new ways of motivating the non-academic pupils - through a wider range of vocational courses, for example.
He adds that the league tables should be constructed on an average points score per pupil, so that teachers are encouraged to help weak candidates to catch up rather than to ignore them in favour of stronger classmates.
All is not hopeless: Britain's "long tail" of underachievement was noted long ago and many educationists have been trying to address it. Among these are the staff of Bournville College, Birmingham, where a Certificate of Further Education course was set up last year for students who have left school with poor GCSE grades or no passes at all. The certificate, equivalent to four or five GCSEs, covers both "key skills" - literacy, numeracy and information technology - and vocational subjects.
Maggie Dilloway, who is in charge of pre-vocational courses at the college, says that there are certainly more of these students walking through the door - the course started with 17 students last year but will have more than 30 this September, and it has never been advertised. But though they may have failed, she says, they seem increasingly determined to try again and to succeed.
"Perhaps this is happening because of league tables. Perhaps it is because the emphasis is laid on A to C students. But young people now are more ready to say: 'No. I am worth more than this. I want a second chance,' " she says.Reuse content