GCSE pass rate lowest for a decade

The GCSE pass rate fell to its lowest level for more than a decade this summer when tens of thousands of 16-year-olds left school with nothing to show for 11 years of education.

The GCSE pass rate fell to its lowest level for more than a decade this summer when tens of thousands of 16-year-olds left school with nothing to show for 11 years of education.

As 600,000 youngsters receive their results this morning, the figures expose a growing gap between high-flyers and those who fail. The results are a severe embarrassment to Tony Blair - elected on a programme of giving top priority to education - because this year's candidates spent all their secondary school years under his administration.

Figures show the numbers obtaining A* and A-grade passes and those obtaining A* to C grade passes rose to 16.7 per cent and 58.1 per cent respectively. But the overall pass rate - grades A* to G - fell from 97.9 per cent last year to 97.6 per cent, meaning 170,000 more papers were fails. Some estimates suggest the number of children leaving school with no qualifications, a total of 30,000 last year, could double.

Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, admitted the Government was facing "real challenges" over GCSEs. Figures yesterday showed that national curriculum test results for primary schools had failed to improve standards in maths and English in the past two years.

The drop in the pass rate was seized on by employers, teachers' leaders and opposition spokesmen as evidence that Labour was neglecting the needs of the weakest candidates. They said that - at a time when prominent education figures such as Mike Tomlinson, who is chairing the Government's inquiry into exams reform, were saying high-flyers could bypass GCSEs in future - the exam was failing those youngsters who needed it most as a qualification.

Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said the "scandalous weakness" in schools meant there were "too many people who lack the basic abilities to step into today's world of work". A survey by employers to be published next month would show one in three firms was dissatisfied with the literacy and numeracy skills of young people.

Damian Green, the Conservatives' education spokesman, said the results were "a huge educational problem but also a problem for wider society. "The gap between the best and worst is widening under Labour," he added.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the Government's insistence on school targets for the percentage of pupils getting five A* to C grade passes was "encouraging us to pay less attention to the children at the lower end by its concentration. That's wrong."

At A* to A grade, the pass rate went up from 16.4 per cent to 16.7 per cent. The 0.2 percentage point rise in A* to C grade passes to 58.1 per cent, however, was far lower than the target agreed by the Department for Education and Skills with the Treasury, of a 2 point rise. But it was the drop in the overall pass rate from 97.9 per cent to 97.6 at the bottom end that was causing most concern. In effect, it meant there were 170,000 more failed papers from candidates this year. Every grade below C showed a decline in the pass rate this year.

There was a decline in the pass rates in maths, French and German. In maths, there was a 1.1 percentage-point fall in C grades or above.

There was also a drop in the number of candidates opting for modern languages, which experts believe will be extended now the subject is to be made voluntary at 14 from September. This year religious education had ousted German from the top 10 of the most popular subjects to study at GCSE.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the fall should serve as a "wake-up call" to ministers. He said the position was "very serious" and the country was paying a price for its failure to recruit teachers of foreign languages.

The Government will publish the results of an inquiry into maths teaching next month. It is also promoting foreign language teaching in primary schools and may give all seven-year-olds the chance to study one by the end of the decade.

Boys slightly narrowed the gender gap in GCSEs this year. Girls failed to improve the proportion of entries graded A* to C - which stalled at 62.4 per cent. Among boys the figure went up 0.2 points to 53.6 per cent. Girls still led boys in the percentage of A* grades gained - with six per cent compared with 4.1 per cent.

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