Leading article: Pupils lose out with a system so prone to manipulation

Teaching to the test is the downside to SATs, and now it is happening with GCSEs

This year's GCSE results, announced yesterday, show some worrying trends despite the overall increase in the pass rate – particularly among the higher grades where A* to C grades have increased by 0.8 per cent to 69.8 per cent.

A new tendency has emerged this year of schools putting their pupils in for English and maths GCSEs early. This would be all well and good if the pupils were ready to take them and could then move on early to AS-level study. But what seems to be happening is that schools are putting them in for the exam in the winter because of the pressures they face to maximise the number of pupils getting five A* to C grade passes in maths and English.

If pupils get a top-grade pass, the argument goes, all well and good. They can then be freed up to concentrate on other subjects in the summer. If they fail, then at least the school knows how much work has to be done to secure a top-grade pass in the basics.

This is not in the best interests of the pupils' education – it smacks of the debate we have had about teaching to the test for the SATs taken by 11-year-olds over the past few years. There is, after all, little time for creative study in English if the pupil concerned has to concentrate on taking the exam twice within six months.

One simple method to overcome this would be to ban all re-sits. But such a draconian curb would probably be a step too far. After all, as Ziggy Liaquat, chief executive of the Edexcel exam board, has argued, how many of us would be driving today if we had been refused permission to take our test a second time.

The more persuasive argument might be to emphasise to heads – as was done in the case of the SATs – that teaching to the test or exam is boring for the pupil and likely to impede performance rather than improve it.

The second downside to this year's results is the continuing decline of modern foreign languages and, to a lesser extent, history and geography. Government policy on modern languages has long been criticised but despite the cries for urgent action to improve take-up, French and German have both declined by a further 13.2 per cent this year. Sad to report, even take-up of minority languages such as Mandarin, Arabic and Italian, is falling.

One of the criticisms being made of language GCSEs is that the content is too pedestrian, involving too much rote learning. Yesterday Mark Dawe, the chief executive of the Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society of Art exam board, acknowledged that it was time for a debate on their content. That is very welcome news but it should have taken place a few years ago – before so many language teaching posts were axed in schools.

A welcome development in this regard will be Education Secretary Michael Gove's English baccalaureate, which cannot be obtained by any pupil without at least a C grade pass in a language. The candidates who took the exam this year were in the middle of their courses before this initiative was launched, so – despite talk of schools getting pupils to switch courses midstream – there was never any likelihood it would influence this year's figures. The crunch will come next year when we see the full impact of the English baccalaureate and whether headteachers heed the warning not to hothouse their pupils.