Claims of continued success fail to conceal the worrying signs

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The Independent Online

The exam boards could have bored for Britain yesterday when they tried to play down the trends indicated by this year's GCSE results.

The exam boards could have bored for Britain yesterday when they tried to play down the trends indicated by this year's GCSE results.

"We're talking about a well-established, stable exam qualification that's performing consistently well all the time," said John Milner, convener of the Joint Council for General Qualifications – the umbrella group that represents all the exam boards. "We're not talking about wild success in performance. We're talking about steadiness."

Up to a point, he was correct. There is a modest increase only in the number of A* to C-grade passes this year – from 57.1 per cent to 59.9 per cent. The overall pass rate has remained the same at 97.1 per cent. The gap between the performance of girls and boys has changed by only 0.1 of a percentage point – largely accounted for by girls getting a better grip on information technology (at grade C they outperform boys by 8.7 points compared with 6.4 per cent in the previous year).

However, there are some worrying – and some hopeful – signs from this year's results.

Most worrying is the drop in the number of pupils taking French and German. At a time when the number in the age group has risen by 30,000, we are witnessing a drop in entries of 17,500 in these two subjects with the prospect of a bigger fall to come once schools start treating modern foreign languages as voluntary from the age of 14.

A second headache is over the gap in performance between boys and girls. True, the gap in performance in A* to C grades only increased by 0.1 of a percentage point this year – from 8.9 per cent to 9 per cent. However, that came after a year in which boys had narrowed the gap for the first time. This year's results seem to indicate that could have been just a blip. Butthe performance of both sexes is improving. It is just that girls are improving at a faster rate than boys.

The third minus point is that the gap between the top performers and those at the bottom of the heap is growing. While there is an increase in A* to C-grade passes, the overall pass rate remains the same – tending to confirm the view of education experts including Professor Alan Smithers, adviser to the Commons Select Committee on Education, and John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, that schools are concentrating on turning possible D-grade candidates into Cs so that they will do well in the league tables.

Of course, improving a 97.9 per cent pass rate is difficult and to do so might cause those such as Ruth Lea, of the Institute of Directors, who see grade inflation and easier exam standards at every turn, to become apoplectic. However, what is worrying is that achieving a distinction pass in the equivalent vocational test, the General National Vocational Qualifications, is far more difficult (only 2.2 per cent achieve it compared with 16.4 per cent managing an A* or A-grade pass in GCSEs).

On the plus side, though, there is the fact that the percentage of top-grade passes has gone up and – notwithstanding the concern expressed over the low take-up of maths at A-level last week – there has been a big rise in the number of candidates taking GCSE in that subject. The number of candidates is up by 19,000 – an increase of 2.7 per cent. One of the reasons is thought to be that a substantial number of the children being "fast-tracked" through GCSEs at an early age opt to take maths.

In addition, the proportion gaining top-grade passes in the core subjects – maths and English – has risen by 1.2 points and 1 point respectively.