Radical shake-up of GCSE will weed out illiterate and innumerate students

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A radical overhaul of the GCSE exam will make it impossible for candidates in English and maths to obtain a C-grade pass without having mastered the basics of numeracy and literacy.

New, tougher GCSE exams will include questions on basic skills which candidates will have to pass before they can be awarded top-grade passes.

The moves come as results for 600,000 16-year-olds - due out this Thursday - are expected to show an increase in the number of candidates obtaining A*- and A-grade passes. However, the overall pass rate is likely to remain pegged at last year's figure of 97.6 per cent - which will fuel claims that the gap between the brightest and struggling youngsters has widened again.

Youngsters will start studying for the new English exam in September 2006 - with the first candidates sitting it in 2008. The changes to maths will come in a year later.

Ministers are also planning a shake-up to exam league tables so that, in future, all schools are forced to show what percentage of their pupils obtaining five A*- to C- grade passes include maths and English in that figure. This will end the practice of schools boosting exam results by entering students for vocational studies such as health and social care - which are worth four GCSEs - rather than concentrating on maths and English.

Research has shown that nine out of the 10 most improved schools in the country raised their results using this method.

The drive follows the decision to make A-levels harder, which was underlined by the schools minister, Lord Adonis, last week as he prepared for a further rise in the number of candidates obtaining A-grade passes.

The figure went up from 22.4 per cent to 22.8 per cent - making it even harder for university admissions staff to select the brightest candidates for popular courses such as law and medicine.

Professor Alan Smithers, of the Centre for Education and Employment said: "It is a difficult dilemma.

"There do appear to be some youngsters who don't believe a G grade in a GCSE is a worthwhile qualification and therefore don't bother to get one."

The proportion of students obtaining five A*- to C-grade passes is expected to rise from 59.2 per cent to 59.8 per cent - while A* grades go up 0.3 percentage points to 5.9 per cent and A grades by 0.4 points to 17.9 per cent.

The rise in the percentage of youngsters obtaining five top-grade passes this year is unlikely, though, to meet targets set by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. He wants to see a 2 percentage-point rise and a rise of 0.6 per cent means that it is unlikely to be met.