The steady improvement in GCSE results has stalled for the first time in seven years, this year's grades, due out for 700,000 pupils on Thursday, will show.
In English and maths, the proportion of entries awarded the three top grades has fallen slightly, the Independent has learnt. The two subjects attract the biggest entries, along with science.
The steep rise in the proportion of entries getting grades A-C - up 11 per cent since GCSE replaced O-level seven years ago - has been controversial. Traditionalists say the exam is getting easier and does not stretch bright pupils. Exam boards say a careful check is kept on standards and teachers argue that they and their pupils are working harder.
Ministers have been under pressure from the political right to tighten standards. Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, is likely to order an inquiry into whether exams at 16-plus and 18-plus are harder than they were 30 years ago.
The GCSE results contrast with last week's A-level results in which the pass rate rose by nearly 1 per cent.
Top grades in GCSE English are believed to be down by around 2 per cent compared with a 1 per cent rise last year. However, the proportion of A grades at GCSE continues to increase. Government advisers on exams will argue that the halt in the rise in GCSE grades is partly the result of more rigorous checks put in place to ensure standards are maintained.
Exam boards now have to use a national sample of scripts when they are setting boundaries between the grades to ensure that all examiners have the same idea of what grades mean in different subjects. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority held an inquiry last year after a big increase in the number of B grades in maths and science at two boards was revealed.
English teachers also believe that the Government's decision to cut the amount of coursework in exams is depressing results.
Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "Many English teachers feel those candidates on the borderline between grade C and D are the candidates who would be motivated by coursework."
The proportion of top grades in maths, up last year by around 1 per cent, is also down.
More than two-thirds of university places for this autumn are now full, the Universities & Colleges Admissions Service said last night. Out of a total of 270,000 places, 190,000 have been taken. The number of applicants (395,000) remains the same as last year , as does the number of places. Many universities were still advertising places on popular courses such as the arts and social sciences yesterday.
On Wednesday the Independent will be running, exclusively, the full official list of university vacancies.
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