GCSE pass rate rises for 23rd year in a row

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Teenagers across the country celebrated record GCSE grades today as national results showed that around one in 10 are now sitting English and maths exams early.

The GCSE pass rate has risen for the 23rd year in a row, and almost one in four entries was awarded at least an A grade.

The results also show that girls are pulling further ahead of boys, and that while more pupils are choosing to take science GCSEs there has been a massive slump in the numbers taking foreign languages.

Figures for England, Wales and Northern Ireland reveal a huge rise in the proportions of youngsters being entered for exams early - a finding that is likely to reignite the debate over whether GCSEs are getting easier.

This summer, seven-year-old Oscar Selby, from Epsom, Surrey, scored an A* in his maths GCSE. He is understood to be the youngest ever to score the top grade in a GCSE exam.

In total, some 83,000 pupils, more than one in 10, sat their maths GCSE at the age of 15 or younger - a 37% increase on 2009.

And 66,900 pupils, just under one in 10, sat their English GCSE at the age of 15 or younger - a 50% rise on last year.

It was suggested that the trend is partly down to the last government scrapping Sats for 14-year-olds. The move has meant some schools now start GCSE studies a year earlier.

Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: "For high-achieving students, schools are able to compress the Key Stage 3 curriculum and allow them to start some GCSEs a year early. Schools are working hard to stretch their most able students and make sure that they have the opportunity to gain as many qualifications as possible."

Dr Dunford added that a "few" schools may be entering pupils for exams early so that if they fail they get another chance at the qualification.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) praised students for their results, but insisted the Government needs to ensure GCSEs are fit for every student.

"The experience in the classroom of our members is that, irrespective of achievement, students are turned off by the exam culture dictated from on high," she said.

"To succeed in education, work and life, young people need to develop useful and transferable skills, which an over-packed curriculum focused on passing tests does not provide."

She added: "ATL believes it is unacceptable for a generation of young people to be this poorly served.

"The Government must decide, and decide quickly, what the 14-16 phase of education should look like and keep students' needs, and the cultivation of a passion for learning, at the centre of all decisions. The status quo long lost its credibility."

Today's results show that girls are still leaving boys behind, continuing the trend of the last two decades.

The gender gap has widened slightly at grade A-A*. This year, 25.5% of girls' entries were awarded at least an A grade compared to 19.5% of boys' entries - a gap of 6%.

This has been widening since 2007, when the gap was 5.2%. And in 1989, the gap was just 1.5%.

Boys did outperform girls in maths for the second year running, the results showed, as well as doing better in economics and physics.

It has been suggested that girls results are higher because they are better at completing coursework and undergoing regular assessment.

It has been predicted that the previous Government's decision to scrap coursework in favour of "controlled assessment" will benefit boys over the next few years.

Brian Lightman, ASCL general secretary elect, said the gender gap was more to do with the examining system than what children actually learn.

The numbers of pupils taking GCSEs in the three sciences - biology, chemistry and physics - has increased, although the proportion being awarded top grades has fallen, the results showed.

Overall, 69.1% of all GCSE entries were awarded at least a C grade, up two percentage points on 2009. More than one in five (22.6%) entries achieved an A* or an A, up one percentage point on last year.

The rises came despite the number of entries dipping again this year - there were more than 5.37 million entries, compared with 5.47 million in 2009.

After a drop in the number of English entries being awarded a C last year, the pass rate has risen this summer. Almost two thirds (64.7%) of English entries gained at least a C grade, up from 62.7% in 2009.

In maths, 58.4% of entries achieved a C, up from 57.2% last summer.

French entries are down by 5.9%, and it has dropped out of the list of top 10 subjects for the first time.

Entries for German have also dropped by 4.5%. Bucking the trend is Spanish, which saw a 0.9% rise.

More teenagers are also opting for other modern foreign languages - entries for Chinese are up by 5.2%, Portuguese by 9.6% and Polish by 12%.

More youngsters are opting for Religious Studies, the results showed, and is now the ninth most popular subject, up from number 11 last year.

Nick McKemey, head of school improvement for the Church of England, said: "Twelve years of organic growth in student numbers cannot be ignored.

"This is a phenomenon that indicates students' appreciation that exploring faith and belief helps them to understand the world and become better global citizens."