22 Aug '13

News GCSE results 2013: science grades fall after papers are made tougher

Figures show dramatic rise in students sitting GCSE languages, including Urdu, Arabic and Chinese

The proportion of students getting good grades in science GCSE exams has significantly fallen, after the introduction of new "deliberately tougher" papers.

The proportion of students getting an A*-C in the core element of the new science exam, which is sat mostly by 15-year-olds, fell from 54.1% in 2012 to 52.9% in 2013. The proportion getting good grades in the "additional" element, which is designed for 16-year-olds, also fell from 66.4% in 2012 to 64.1% in 2013.

Fewer of those entered for the separate sciences achieved A*-Cs, with pass rates for biology (- 2.8% points), chemistry (-3 % points) and physics (2.4% points) dropping.

"The specification is deliberately tougher, so a fall was expected. But the move of some higher performing candidates to international GCSEs, and an increase in 15-year-olds entering the exam – and then performing less well – have also contributed to the dip," says Andrew Hall of exam board AQA.

He added that the number of students moving away from double science to the separate sciences has also weakened the pool of candidates sitting the science GCSE double award.

More students took separate exams in biology (+5%), chemistry (+ 4.4%) and physics (+2.1%), an increase that was fueled by girls who narrowed the gender gap in entries to the separate sciences. In physics, entries by girls increased 6.55% compared with a 1.7% decrease for boys.

"The move away from the double science award and towards separate sciences may well narrow the gender gap further over time and bring more specialist teachers into the profession," said Hall.

The percentage of pupils obtaining a C grade or above in sciences fell by 1.2 percentage points and the proportion achieving an A or A* fell by 0.3 percentage points.

In maths, there was a 0.8 percentage point fall in the proportion achieving A* to C grades.

The results also show signs of recovery in what some have called a crisis in modern languages with more GCSE students opting for French, German and Spanish, following a government push for the subject.

After years of decline, this year's results show a dramatic rise in the number of students sitting GCSE languages, with entries in French (+15.5%), German (+9.4%) and Spanish (+25.8%) each increasing.

Of the three, only Spanish increased last year. French remains the most popular language taken by students, with 177,288 entries.

Other modern languages also saw a rise in popularity, increasing by 5.1% this year, compared with a rise of 13.7% in 2012. The most popular other modern languages are: Italian (5,136 entries); Urdu (4,519 entries); Polish (3,933 entries); Arabic (3,607 entries) and Chinese (3,042 entries).

Last week, exam boards announced an inquiry after the number of sixthformers taking traditional modern foreign languages at A-level – and the number achieving the top grades – plummeted.

Despite the increase in GCSE entries, Hall said concerns about language learning hadn't gone away.

"We can see the Ebac [a government league table measure that counts the proportion of pupils taking traditional subjects including modern languages] effect is making an impact here but it remains to be seen if this will translate to A-level. And, before we get too excited, we should remember that still only 44% of 16-year-olds in the UK are learning a language."

The increase in entries to languages also prompted a dip in the pass rate at grade C that was "much more noticeable than in history and geography", subjects which also saw a surge in entries, after they were included in the Ebac measure.

The number of students sitting geography rose 19.2% on 2012, while history increased 16.7% on 2012.

The separate sciences also increased in popularity – with more students taking biology (+5%), chemistry (+ 4.4%) and physics (+2.1%).

Hall said he expected this trend would "narrow the gender gap over time and bring more specialist teachers into the profession".

Elizabeth Truss, education minister, said the "terrible decline in languages that occurred on Labour's watch" was turning around and that there had been 50,000 more entries in language GCSEs.

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