The national GCSE pass rate has tumbled by the biggest margin since the exam replaced O-levels almost 30 years ago, driven downwards by conflicting government policies and a jump in older students forced to resit core topics.
In what exam boards chiefs described as “a complex national picture”, the headline pass rate fell by 2.1 percentage points to 66.9% attaining C grade or above, and falls in the proportion winning the highest A* and A grades.
In England alone, the proportion getting good grades dipped to 66.6%, led by a 2.4 percentage point drop in the pass rate for boys. Unexpected shifts in the numbers and abilities of candidates caused a dip in results for several major subjects including English and sciences.
But it was the effect of the government’s new policy – imposing retakes on pupils in England who failed to get at least a C in English or maths – that provoked most controversy, with leading educationalists arguing that the results showed that repeated retakes by 17- and 18-year-olds were ineffective.
The number of those aged 17 and over taking GCSEs in maths has more than doubled in just two years, from 80,000 to more than 160,000, but their success rate has stuttered, with fewer than 30% gaining the coveted C grade.
Mark Dawe, former head of an exam board and chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “This is evidence enough that hitting students over the head with the same form of learning and assessment is not the way forward.”
Dawe’s view was backed by Jo-Anne Baird, professor of education at Oxford University, who said that a better GCSE should be developed for older students.
“The requirement for all to gain grade C in English and maths is surely the right aspiration for the education system. But resitting an exam that you failed, maybe because it didn’t engage you in the first place, could switch people off to further learning,” she said.
Labour joined the attack, with the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, saying the government’s “relentless focus” on exams was the wrong way to develop numeracy and literacy skills.
“It is worrying that some children are losing out and not reaching their full potential in core subjects like English and maths. Resits are clearly not tackling the issue of underachievement. The government must think again,” Rayner said.
But the schools minister, Nick Gibb, said: “For those 17-year-olds who have struggled to achieve good grades in maths, we are seeing 4,000 more successful retakes of those exams, delivering better prospects for every one of those young people.”
The results for 16-year-olds alone revealed a much better performance, although there was still a 1.3 percentage point fall in A*-Cs compared with 2015. That was attributed to an influx of less-able students shifting from alternative qualifications to take GCSEs, especially in science, as schools aimed to meet the Department for Education’s new performance measures.
But in English the effect was reversed, as schools moved more able pupils into the alternative iGCSE qualification, the last year they will be able to do so under a policy introduced by former education secretary Michael Gove. The net effect was falls in the percentage getting good grades in English as well as combined sciences.
Physics, biology and chemistry were all beneficiaries of increased entries, as schools worked to meet the requirements of the English baccalaureate (Ebacc) introduced by Gove and the new Progress 8 measure to be used as the benchmark for school performance from this year.
The increase in science entries was applauded by the Royal Society, although the Wellcome Trust said there was more to do to sustain and improve grades, as the tide of new entries gained lower results than the previous year’s.
History and geography saw similar patterns, as higher entries led to lower results, “suggesting that the entries now comprise a wider range of abilities,” according to the Joint Council on Qualifications.
But modern foreign languages largely failed to gain from the rush to study the Ebacc subjects. While Spanish continued its climb in popularity, rising for the fifth year in a row, German and French continued to lose entries. All three saw lower grades, with Spanish the most affected by “a more varied cohort”, according to the JCQ.
But the shifting flows of entries obscured otherwise stable performances. Maths bucked the trend, as 16-year-olds gained a higher proportion of good grades, including A*-As. Exam regulator Ofqual also noted that combining GCSE and iGCSE grades in English revealed similar results between 2015 and 2016.
London continued to outperform the rest of England, and Northern Ireland also improved overall with 79% gaining Cs or above. Wales, after a grim set of A-level results last week, remained unchanged with 66.6% getting A*-C grades – the same as England.
Among the many schools and individuals celebrating success were the three sets of twins attending Ripon grammar school in Yorkshire. Louisa and Katharine Chatterton, Lorcan and Molly Gallagher and Harry and George Stratford combined for 58 A*s and As.
West London free school, the pioneering school established by Toby Young in 2011, saw its first GCSE results, with 76% of pupils gaining five A*-Cs. “I’m over the moon. The pupils and staff have done us all proud,” Young said.
However, those results were eclipsed by the first set of GCSEs for the Tauheedul Islam Boys free school in Blackburn, where 95% of pupils gained A*-Cs