Low-grade passes seen as failure by employers

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Businesses are increasingly regarding anything less than a C-grade pass as a failure, it has emerged. The Department for Education and Skills acknowledged yesterday that what is termed level two - five top-grade passes - was "recognised as being the marker for employability and progression to higher levels of education". Professor Alan Smithers, of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University, said: "What they're saying is that that is a de facto pass. Everybody else is saying that, too."

David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "I know the Confederation of British Industry seems to think A* to C is the only worthwhile pass. It looks to me as if the department is taking the same view. I regret that very much in the sense that it sends an extremely negative message to all candidates who are achieving D grades and below. Maybe that's just a reality of life, though."

Today's results are expected to show a further rise in the number of scripts being awarded A* to C-grade passes - from 59.2 per cent to about 60 per cent. (A* to C grades are considered to be the equivalent of old O-level passes.) The number of A* and A-grade passes is also expected to rise - from 5.6 per cent and 17.4 per cent respectively to nearer six per cent and 18 per cent.

The overall pass rate is expected to stagnate at about 97.6 per cent - it has remained at the same level for the past five years.

The figures mean the gap between top performers and those lower down the scale is rising.

Professor Smithers said the stagnant pass rate meant that thousands of youngsters were failing the exam because they could not be bothered to pass it. "They wonder what is the point of trying to get a G-grade pass in GCSE if no one rates it," he said. "The trouble is we haven't properly developed any other qualifications. It just leaves a lot of young people thinking really that they have failed. Some aren't even bothering to get on the end of the scale."

Today's figures are likely to show a further slump in the number of youngsters opting to take modern foreign languages, such as French or German. The subject became voluntary for 14 to 16-year-olds from last September - although some schools had cut the numbers before then. The number taking French last year dipped by 3.9 per cent to 318,095 and German by 2.9 per cent to 122,023. That is likely to decrease further this year. The rise in religious studies - up 6.6 per cent to 141,037 last year - is also set to continue.

The DfES said that there had been "year on year" rises in the numbers getting five top-grade passes, but added: "There are still too many without the key skills leaving education altogether." The percentage of pupils getting five top-grade passes and the numbers leaving without any qualifications will not be known until later this autumn - as this morning's figures only relate to the total number of scripts rather than candidates.