Performance of private schools slips but comprehensives flourish

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The Independent Online

Teenagers in state comprehensives are improving faster than pupils from families who pay to go private, figures showed yesterday.

Comprehensives have narrowed the GCSE gap on private schools after improving their results steadily over the past five years, an official analysis of the results revealed.

And independent schools have actually seen their proportion of good GCSE grades fall over the past two years - meaning that private schools' results are responsible for a slowdown in the overall improvement rate, according to a study by the exam boards.

Meanwhile, grammar schools have now overtaken private schools for the first time for the proportion of students scoring A* or A grades.

The analysis came as national figures for 750,000 pupils across the UK showed record GCSEs results again this year. Nearly one in five - 19.5 per cent - of all GCSE exams was awarded an A or an A*, while 63.3 per cent received at least a C grade, up from 62.4 per cent last year.

However, the pass rate for D to G grades decreased slightly by 0.1 percentage points, suggesting a widening gap between the academically successful and those who struggle. This year boys continued to narrow the gender gap, which dropped by 0.2 percentage points for A* and A grades, 0.6 percentage points for A* to C and 0.1 percentage points for A* to G.

Announcing the results, Dr Mike Cresswell, director general of the AQA exam board, said that the differences between school types showed that the improved results could not simply be due to exams getting easier.

"For the last two years, grade As are going down in the independent sector. In comprehensives it has been going up," he said.

Dr Cresswell said the improvements in results were "due to improved teaching and more effective learning". "If it was just getting easier to get a grade A then the independent graph would be going up as well.

"At grade C, comprehensives have shown the biggest improvements since 2002, while grade-C results in the independent sector have been falling."

But the analysis showed that comprehensives have a long way to go before they catch up with private and grammar schools.

This year, 50.8 per cent of exams taken by pupils in independent schools were As or A*s, down from 51.7 per cent in 2005.

In state comprehensives, 15.3 per cent of exams were awarded As or A*s this year, up from 14.1 per cent in 2005.

Grammars came out top this year, with 51.5 per cent of exams given top grades, a rise from 49.8 per cent two years ago. However, the Independent Schools Council (ISC), which represents most of the UK's fee-paying schools, disputed the exam boards' analysis, arguing that the drop in the proportions of good grades was due to the fact that many leading private schools had abandoned GCSEs for not being challenging enough.

Sam Freedman, head of research at the ISC, said hundreds of schools were taking International GCSEs (IGCSEs), which were not included in the exam boards' figures.

The IGCSE is seen as a more challenging exam and has been likened to traditional O-levels. Growing numbers of independent schools have been swapping to the international exams in recent years because GCSEs are seen as too "easy". He said: "The IGCSE makes a huge difference to the performance of the independent sector. Over 200 ISC schools are taking IGCSEs, including many of the most academic schools."

But the exam boards dismissed this suggestion. Dr Cresswell said that he thought it was "highly unlikely" that the difference could be explained by schools moving to the IGCSE.

And Greg Watson, the chief executive of the OCR exam board, which offers IGCSEs, said: "The number of schools switching across to IGCSEs is really actually very small and would be drowned in the numbers that we are talking about here.

"That wouldn't explain the changes you can see."