The proportion of examination entries awarded grades A* to C, the equivalent of a pass under the old O-level system, is understood to have risen by just over 1 per cent, to around 55 per cent. The percentage of passes has gone up every year since the GCSE exam replaced O-levels nine years ago, but recent increases have been lower than those in the exam's early days. Last year's rise was 1 per cent.
Increases in the percentage of pupils awarded the two top grades of A or A* are levelling off in some subjects.
This year's figures are expected to continue last year's trend, with the total number of examinations entered failing to keep pace with the growing number of 16-year-olds. Several major subjects are expected to show a fall in the number of entries. Teachers' leaders blamed the fall on schools' decisions to hold back weak candidates to boost their exam league table positions. League tables, introduced in 1991, show the proportion of pupils gaining five A* to C grades.
But the Department for Education said at the time that schools had no incentive to withdraw weak pupils, since the figures were based on the total number of pupils eligible for the exam, not on the number who actually sat them.
There may be other explanations for a drop in entries, including the growing number of pupils taking vocational qualifications, while fewer lower sixth-formers are resitting GCSEs.
Some schools may have decided to reduce the number of subjects taken by less able pupils in the hope that they will score more highly by concentrating on fewer subjects. And the upturn in the economy may have encouraged more pupils to leave school at Easter and take jobs without waiting for their examinations.
David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has expressed concern about the number of pupils leaving school without any qualifications - more than one in seven. He is also worried that the gap between the best and worst-performing pupils at GCSE is widening. Some experts fear that the least-able pupils are being neglected as schools concentrate on those capable of getting C grades.
The Government has already set national targets for 11-year-olds in English and maths. Officials from the Department for Education and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority are investigating how schools could set targets for GCSE performance.
The improvement in GCSE results will bring criticisms from traditionalists that the exam is less tough than the old O-level. However, exam officials say the exams are subject to strict monitoring by the curriculum authority and checks are carried out to ensure that standards for all boards are comparable.
Alan Smithers, professor of public policy at Brunel University, said last night: "I do think that this improvement is genuine, as teachers and students become more familiar with the requirements of what is needed to do well."
He said that those who believed standards had fallen had failed to understand how exams had changed. The purpose of O-level was to pick out the brightest, but the aim of the GCSE was to have a worthwhile qualification for everyone.
n Student teachers may be offered "salaries" to forestall a recruitment crisis. Senior officials at the Department for Education have discussed back-dating part of a qualified teacher's salary.
The National Association of Head Teachers will propose such a scheme in its evidence to the review body on teachers' pay. Applications for teacher training have fallen sharply this year.Reuse content