The biggest gender gap yet in GCSE performance opened up with the announcement of the results for 650,000 students yesterday. Girls were 6.7 percentage points ahead at A* and A grade with more than one in four (26.5 per cent) registering a top grade pass – the largest gap since the A* was introduced in 1994.
The trend was in stark contrast to A-level results that showed boys closing the gender gap and registering just as many A* passes as girls.
However, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the gap could be down to a "lack of maturity" on the part of boys who only knuckle down to learning once a university place is in sight.
The girls' stellar performance coincided with a big rise in the take-up of sciences – physics up 16.4 per cent, chemistry 15.2 per cent and biology 14.2 per cent. According to Andrew Hall, chief executive of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance – Britain's biggest exam board – girls were now becoming "confident" in their ability to tackle the sciences.
Overall, the results showed a marginal increase in the pass rate – up 0.1 percentage points to 98.8 per cent. The percentage of A* to C grades went up – but only by 0.8 per cent compared with 2 percentage points last year. The figure now stands at 69.8 per cent. At A*/A grade, it went up by 0.6 percentage points to 23.2 per cent.
This year saw a reduction in the number of candidates sitting GCSEs – the number of scripts was down by 4.2 per cent, compared with a drop of just 2.6 per cent in the age cohort.
This is being attributed by exam boards to a combination of schools choosing alternative exams – such as the IGCSE, based on the traditional O-level, and teachers putting pupils in for fewer subject to avoid cramming them with too many exams.
In addition, growing numbers – particularly in English – were sitting exams early, partly as an attempt by schools to give themselves a better chance of securing a good league table position.
Religious studies showed the biggest percentage increase – going up by 17.6 per cent to 221, 000, confounding critics who suggested some schools might switch pupils from it in the middle of their studies since it did not count towards the English baccalaureate.
The decline in modern-languages provision continued, so that only one in four pupils now studies French at GCSE. For German, the figure is fewer than one in 10. The gap in performance between state and independent schools remained wide – although private schools accounted this year for 17.7 per cent of all A* grades compared with 17.8 per cent last year. They represented just 8 per cent of the candidates.
There were concerns that successful GCSE candidates could be put off further study as a result of the Government's decision to axe the educational maintenance allowance.
"Many students will find it difficult to continue in education despite having the grades and potential to do so," said Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. However, ministers argue they are targeting funding at the most needy students. The poorest 12,000 students will receive £1,200 a year under their plans.