Thirteen-thousand fewer pupils took English than last year, a 2 per cent decline, compared with a fall in the number of 16-year-olds of 1.3 per cent. The proportion of top grades in English was also slightly lower.
One expert suggested that boys, who traditionally do less well than girls in English, were voting with their feet against a subject that they disliked.
English teachers said schools might be entering fewer pupils because the last government's decision to cut coursework had made it more difficult for teachers to interest the less able pupils. Numbers also dropped in history, geography, humanities, economics and French but increased in Spanish.
The GCSE examination boards said provisional figures showed that the proportion of entries getting grades A* to C - the equivalent of the old O-level - was up by 0.4 per cent to 54.4 per cent. Alan Smithers, professor of public policy at Brunel University, said: "It could be that we are seeing a shift away from the classical curriculum to encompass a broader range of subjects." Exam league tables are based on the proportion of pupils getting five A* to C grades. But they can be in any subject and need not include English, he pointed out.
Dr Kim Howells, the education and employment minister, said he was concerned at the dip in performance in English but believed that measures on literacy and national targets for 11-year-olds would, in time, take effect.
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