In a rational world, a 0.4 percentage point drop in the number of students getting top grade passes in an exam in any given year should not be a cause for national alarm.
In fact, in the words of John Cridland, the director general of the CBI, it could help to restore the exam's credibility after 24 successive years of rises. The case for defending the drop in the A* to C grade pass rate at GCSE is immeasurably strengthened when you consider that a large part of the fall reflects a toughening of the science exam after Ofqual, the regulator, concluded that it was not demanding enough for students.
There must, though, be a question mark over the decision by exam boards to raise the grade boundaries for a C grade in English at the last minute. This left many students, who would probably have earned a C had they taken the exam in January, with a D instead. And the rigidity of the system makes them ineligible to take up the provisional college or sixth-form places they were offered.
And while it may have been cack-handed of the exam boards – to put it mildly – to have done this in the way they did, there is an issue here. Because the C/D difference can determine a student's future, especially in maths and English, those who are on the borderline tend to occupy a disproportionate amount of teachers' time – sometimes to the detriment of pushing those students who end up with a B grade harder. No less crucially, that same C/D difference also determines the school's future. If it fails to reach the Education Secretary's floor target of 40 per cent of all pupils gaining five A* to C grade passes, including maths and English, the head could be sacked and the school required to assume academy status.
It may be worth revisiting that stipulation, at least this year, in the light of the late grading change. In general, though, for all the complaints of disconsolate teachers, this year's trend both in A‑levels and GCSEs shows an examination system that is at last on the right track – demanding more rigour from students and, it is to be hoped, starting to offer qualifications that universities and employers can rely on.