Choosy teenagers recorded the biggest rise in top grade GCSE passes for almost two decades yesterday – partly by taking fewer exams, in subjects they were best at.
Figures showed the percentage of pupils awarded pass grades at A* to C rose by 2.4 per cent to 65.7 per cent – the largest increase since the first year of the exam in 1989.
The percentage of pupils achieving A* and A grade passes also rose by 1.2 per cent to 20.7 per cent – the first year that more than one in five scripts was awarded a top-grade pass. Overall, the pass rate climbed from 97.9 per cent to 98.2 per cent.
However, the figures also showed a big drop in the number of entries, down by 158,242 (2.7 per cent) despite a drop of only 1 per cent in the age cohort.
They revealed that students were taking fewer GCSEs than in previous years, on average fewer than eight, compared with well above that figure in previous years.
Mike Cresswell, the director general of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, the country's biggest exam board, said: "Some young people are decreasing their subject entries and taking fewer GCSEs than in the past.
"Students are focusing their efforts more tightly on a smaller range of subjects."
John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents secondary school heads, added: "I think schools are concentrating on quality rather than quantity. They recognise it is of no benefit to a pupil to do 10, 11 or 12 GCSEs – better to do eight or nine good GCSEs and get grades."
Exam board bosses also cited two other reasons for the drop in entries: independent schools are shifting towards the International GCSE (IGCSE), designed along the lines of the traditional O-level, where there is no coursework assessment; and a rise in the number of pupils opting to take their GCSE exams early. The switch to the IGCSE, considered by those who take it to be more challenging, is mainly in maths and science subjects.
Meanwhile, yesterday's results showed that girls were increasing the gap over boys again after several years in which it had narrowed. Figures showed the gap at A*/A grade level had risen by 0.4 per cent to 5.6 per cent. Nearly one in four girls (22.1 per cent) achieved a top grade pass. At A* to C grade level, the gap rose by 0.1 per cent to 7.2 per cent.
Dr Cresswell said it was too early to say whether the widening of the gap again was "a trend".
A regional breakdown of the results showed a reverse trend to that in A-levels – with the largest rise over the past six years in A*/A grade passes (11.3 per cent) being in the North-east. The lowest was in the South-west (6.1 per cent). The North-east fared worst in the country for A-grade passes at A-levels.
In addition, comprehensive schools and secondary moderns were responsible for the biggest percentage rise in A* to C grade passes in GCSE over the past year (3 per cent and 2.9 per cent respectively) as opposed to a drop in the percentage pass rate for selective state schools (0.5 per cent) and independent schools (0.3 per cent). Independent school leaders said this could be as a result of the drift to the IGCSE.
Dr Cresswell said: "Data like this should lead to a debate about rising standards. If our sports people can do better in the Olympics due to investment or training, I don't think it is actually impossible that students in our schools can produce similar increases in performance."
Triplets and twins notch up 40 top grade passes
A set of triplets and two sets of twins at the same school notched up an impressive 40 A* and A grade passes between them.
The 16-year-old Chizindu triplets, whose family are from Nigeria and who have boarded at the independent fee-paying Badminton school at Bristol since 2005, all have very different talents.
Sabrina, who gained one A* grade, three As, four Bs and one C plus an A* in her short-course religious studies and C in short course Information and Communications Technology, has a passion for theatre and drama.
Stephanie scored highly in art – creating a dress depicting turmoil in Nigeria for her coursework. In all, she obtained one A*, two As, four Bs and two Cs, plus an A* in short course religious studies and C in ICT.
Sophie, who plays netball for the netball team, notched up one A*, two As, four Bs and two Cs in addition to an A* in short course religious studies and C in ICT. "I'm really thrilled with my results and I'm thrilled for my sisters," said Sabrina. "As sisters we compete a lot but when push comes to shove we're all there for each other."
Charis and Darcy Williams, twins from Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire, achieved similar results – Charis obtaining two A*s, five As and a B and an A* in her short- course religious studies and C in ICT and Darcy two A*s, four As and two Bs plus an A* in short-course religious studies and B in ICT.
Of the second set of twins, Eduvieoghene Omene got two A* and seven A grade passes plus an A* in her short course religious studies, and her sister Oghenevwaro got two A*s, six As and two Cs plus an A* in short course religious studies and a B in ICT.Reuse content