Ministers plan clampdown on pupils taking GCSEs early, after dramatic rise in 15-year-olds taking exam was largely responsible for record drop in pass rate

15-year-olds’ results were around 10 per cent down on those sitting the exam at 16

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The Independent Online

Ministers are planning a clampdown on schools entering their pupils for GCSEs a year early after it emerged that a dramatic rise in the number of 15-year-olds taking the exam was largely responsible for a drop in the pass rate.

Figures showed a total of 806,000 entries from 15-year-olds - up 39 per cent from last year as heads tried every trick in the book to gain crucial C grade passes for pupils to boost their league table rankings.  On average, the 15-year-olds’ results were around 10 per cent down on those sitting the exam at 16.

The Government said the practice “should not happen”, adding that its plan to ban pupils from resitting their exams would help stop it being used as an attempt to “game” the system.

Overall, results showed a 1.3 percentage point drop in the number of pupils gaining five A* to C grade passes to 68.1 per cent - the biggest drop in the 25-year history of the exam. A* grade passes were also down by 0,5 percentage points to 6.8 per cent.

A closer analysis of the results, though, showed the pass rate amongst 16-year-olds had remained largely maintained - in English 3.7 per cent of students obtained A* grade passes, the same as last year, while there was a drop to 1.6 per cent amongst 15-year-olds. A similar picture emerged in maths where 4.1 per cent of 15-year-olds obtained an A* grade compared to 5.7 per cent of 16-year-olds.  In terms of A* to C grade passes in maths, there was a slight improvement amongst 16-year-olds from 62 per cent to 62.1 per cent.

“What we’re trying to say today is early entry doesn’t benefit the students,” said Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board.  “These qualifications are designed for 16-year-olds and there is a 10 per cent difference in the pass rate between them and 15-year-olds.  That’s not good for the students.”

In the past, schools have entered their high flyers - widely tipped to get A* or A grade passes - early but a growing number now enter borderline C/D candidates in the hope they can bank a C grade pass and then concentrate on other subjects. If they fail (and 58.1 per do gain a C grade), they can always take the exam again, it is argued. 

Heads have adopted this approach to avoid missing the Government’s minimum target of 40 per cent of pupils getting five A* to C grade passes including maths and English - a miss that could cost them their job. For the same reasons, schools are putting pupils in for multiple exams in the same subject – an analysis of this practice showed two pupils, described as “poor souls” by Andrew Hall, chief executive of the AQA exam board, were put in for eight different maths exams.

“I don’t justify double entry but I can understand it,” said Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

The practice was heavily criticised by the CBI whose director of policy Katja Hall said: “The sheer scale of multiple and early entries is astonishing.  Employers don’t want exam robots - they want young people who are academically stretched, rounded and grounded.

“Turning schools into exam factories and cramming two years’ syllabus into one benefits no-one.  A GCSE should be an assurance of ability, not a consolation prize for surviving months of continual testing and retesting.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: “Schools should not be entering children for exams early, and then for re-sits, or other exams in the same subject. It is not good for pupils and should not happen.

“It is clearly a worry that some schools might be putting pupils in for early entry so they can bank a C rather than studying the subject for another year and perhaps getting a higher grade.”

Exams regulator Ofqual said: “The effect of early entry in particular is striking and appears to be largely responsible  for the drop in overall pass rates.  If you look at the results for 16-year-olds there is a more stable picture.”

Ministers believe moving to end-of-course exams and banning resits - as is envisaged under Education Secretary Michael Gove’s GCSE reforms - will stop schools “gaming” the system.

In addition, they plan to reform exam league tables - scrapping the five A* to C grade ranking for schools. However, plans to replace it with a new threshold revealing the percentage of pupils obtaining A* to C grade passes in maths and English were described as a “serious mistake” by Graham Stuart, the influential Conservative chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee.

Today's results showed a drop in the pass rate in all three core subjects at GCSE - although, in science, this was expected as chemistry, physics and biology papers had been made harder.

In science, the percentage of pupils getting A* or A grade passes in biology, chemistry and physics dropped by 5.8 per cent, six per cent and 4.8 per cent respectively.  However, a drift to the IGCSE - the international equivalent of GCSE based on traditional O-level lines - by many of the country’s better performing schools partly explained this.  If the results from both exams were taken together, the drop was 2.9 per cent, 3.6 per cent and 1.8 per cent respectively - more in line with what would have been expected as a result of the exams being made tougher.

Girls continued to outperform boys  - despite boys moving ahead at A* grade at A-level.  At A* in GCSE, 8.3 per cent of girls obtained the grade while only 5.3 per cent of boys did so,  At A* to C grade, the figures were 72.3 per cent and 63.7 per cent respectively.

Many heads say they feel forced to take action like early or multiple entry as they strive to reach Mr Gove’s improved minimum target for results at a time when Ofqual is insisting results should be in line with last year under its “comparative outcomes” policy.

Nick Weller, chairman of the Independent Academies Association, described Ofqual’s policy as “fundamentally flawed” and “corrupting what used to be a relatively fair and reliable qualification”. “It is in all our interests to get back to a credible examination system,” he added.