Primary Education News

22 Aug '13

News GCSE results 2013: record fall in pupils getting C grades or higher

Figures published by Joint Council for Qualifications show girls extending their lead over boys at grades C and above

This year's GCSE results have seen a record fall in the proportion of pupils getting C grades or higher, triggered by a sharp rise in the number of students aged 15 or younger taking the exam early, tougher science papers and more pupils taking subjects multiple times.

The proportion of GCSE entries achieving an A* to C grade was 68.1%, a larger than expected fall of 1.3 percentage points compared with 2012, when 69.4% of entries achieved A*-C. The percentage of pupils achieving A* to C grades rose from 1988 – the first year GCSE results were published – until last year, when they dropped by 0.4 percentage points. The number of the highest A* grades fell by 0.5%.

The results, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), also show girls have extended their lead over boys at grades C and above. The last time girls outperformed boys to this extent was in 2003. Some 72.3% of girls achieving A*-C, compared with 63.7% of boys, and 8.3% gained A*s compared with 5.3% of boys. This may be the last year this happens, since coursework is being dropped in favour of end-of-year exams, in which girls tend to do worse than boys.

"There were many factors underlying this year's GCSEs, including a sizeable increase in entry by 15-year-olds, new science specifications designed with greater challenge, early and multiple entry in mathematics," said Michael Turner, director of the JCQ. "All of these have had an impact on entries and results."

The size of the fall could be crucial for many schools seeking to stay above the Department for Education's increased floor standard of results. Falling below this triggers automatic inspection by Ofsted, and could have implications for the number of state schools vulnerable to being converted into academies on the grounds of poor performance.

This year, a school will be considered below the floor standard if at least 40% of its pupils do not achieve the standard of at least 5 GCSEs at C or better, including English and maths, and if pupils' overall progress is not good enough in both those two subjects. Last year the floor standard was 35%.

One reason for the weaker than expected results was the higher number of younger students taking GCSE papers. The JCQ figures showed a 39% increase in the number of GCSE exams taken by those aged 15 or younger, for a total of 806,000.

This effect could be seen in English, with a 42% increase in entries from those younger than 16. While results for 16-year-olds remained stable, JCQ said the decline in top grades "can, therefore, be explained by younger students not performing as strongly as 16-year-olds".

A similar pattern was seen in mathematics, with results for 16-year-olds unchanged but a decline in marks for 15-year-olds. The national figures were especially distorted due to early entries by 15-year-olds in maths, which increased by nearly 50% to make up more than one in five maths entries in total.

While 16-year-olds performed virtually the same in maths as previous years, the 15-year-olds did far worse and dragged down the national average.

While 62.1% of 16-year-olds got A*-C grades in maths – a slight improvement on 2012 – only 51.7% of 15-year-olds got the same grades, a more than 10 percentage point margin.

The figures also revealed a rise in the number of individual pupils taking multiple examinations in the same subject over the course of the year. Some 35% of pupils took two or more exams in the same subject, and 10,000 individuals took four exams in the same subject. Two individuals took an unprecedented eight exams in one subject.

Maths was particularly affected, with a total of 1.3m exam papers being sat, although only 888,000 individuals took GCSEs in total.

Andrew Hall, head of the AQA exam board, said that repeated and multiple entries "is doing real damage to education in this country" because of the stress placed on teachers and students. Hall blamed the "perverse incentives" created by the government's targets as the cause of the rush of multiple entries.

There was a rise in students taking the "international GCSE" alternative, with the number of students sitting them doubling from 100,000 to 200,000.

Science grades fell, as expected, following the introduction of new exams with more challenging syllabuses in biology, chemistry, physics and applied science, as well as a shift away from pupils taking combined science towards individual science papers.

However, there were many bright spots around the country. Brighton College, a mixed independent school, celebrated an outstanding 95% of its GCSE entries gaining A* or A – said to be the best-ever result by a co-educational school in Britain.

There was also good news for supporters of modern languages, with a dramatic rise in the number of entries. French, German and Spanish saw a combined increase of nearly 17%.

There was poignant news for the family of Ajmol Alom, the teenager who was murdered near his home in east London earlier this month. Chris Dunne, head teacher at Langdon Park School in Poplar, said that Alom had received eight A grades, including English and maths.

"He was very able, looking forward to GCSE results at a very high level, and very capable of going on to achieve the kind of grades which would have secured him a place at any one of our best universities," Dunne told the Press Association.

The results come on the heels of a slight fall in the highest grades for A-levels for two years in a row, and last year's drop in the overall GCSE pass rate. Early indications are that exam boards adjusted their grade boundaries upwards in some English papers, meaning that it was harder to get a higher grade with the same mark as previous years.

The upward move was an echo of the much larger shift seen in English in 2012, when the grade boundaries were abruptly calibrated upwards, causing dismay in schools around the country and setting off an unsuccessful legal battle to have the grades overturned.

Last year, 63.9% of entries for English were graded A*-C, a 1.5 percentage point fall compared with 2011. English literature saw 76.3% of papers graded A*-C, down from 78.4% in 2011.

The 2013 results come after considerable uncertainty over the shape of this year's GCSE marks, with exam regulator Ofqual warning: "There are a number of changes this year that mean the overall results could look different to results in previous years, even though standards will be maintained."

"The news from Ofqual that schools are entering students for GCSEs early, or multiple times, in order to secure good grades is worrying, but not surprising," said Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

"In the current high-stakes culture where exam grades on their own can determine the future of pupils, teachers and schools, far too much emphasis is placed on exams."

Amid concerns at the rising number of pupils taking multiple exams, the DfE said on Wednesday: "We are considering further action to discourage this practice."

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers' union, said that while the results were the culmination of hard work by pupils and their teachers, it would be "subsumed in the political game playing in which the examination system is now embroiled".

"The reality for young people and teachers is that the coalition government's endless interference with, and denigration of, the qualifications system is causing uncertainty and anxiety, and dashing hopes, aspirations and life chances," she said.


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