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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 August, 2004, 14:56 GMT 15:56 UK
GCSEs: What the statistics show
BBC Education Correspondent Mike Baker
'Are less able students shunning GCSEs?'
BBC education correspondent Mike Baker analyses what the GCSE figures reveal - and what they do not.

"When you have a news editor standing in front of you demanding a story, you have to find one."

That response from one seasoned newspaper education correspondent sums up the annual reporting dilemma over GCSE results.

The reality is that the statistics published on Thursday tell us far less than we might hope.

This is because they only reveal the success rate as a proportion of all exam entries; they do not tell us how many pupils have got, for example, five good passes or no passes at all.

We must wait until later in the year to discover whether there has been an improvement on last year's results which showed that 52.9% of the age group achieved five or more passes at grade C or above.

Alternative courses

So what do Thursday's figures tell us? They show that the number of exam entries rose more slowly than the increase in the total number of 16 year-olds.

So while the number of 16 year-olds in the population has risen by 3.5%, the number of full GCSE entries has grown by just 2.5%.

Does this mean the less able students are shunning GCSEs? Or does it mean the brighter students are taking fewer subjects?

Again, we cannot be sure, although it is not often that journalists feel able to say this.

The ending of the requirement for pupils to study a foreign language after 14 probably explains the continuing decline in the popularity of French and German at GCSE

However, it is possible to speculate that, rather like last week's A-level results, those who fear they may fail a full GCSE are increasingly turning to the growing number of alternatives.

For example, the increase in the entries for the 'Short Course GCSE' (worth half a GCSE) were up by a marked 14.6%.

Equally there were over 113,000 entries for the new 'Applied GCSE' - available for the first time this year - which offers a more vocational approach to studies.

Finally, there was also a small increase in the numbers taking the newly-named Entry Level Certificate', which is designed to offer a qualification for those who have not reached GCSE level.

Overall, then, the examination system may be steadily moving towards one in which students choose, quite sensibly, the courses they can cope with rather than risking failure in the more traditional courses.

Top five increases
Physical education
Religious studies
One thing the statistics do unequivocally demonstrate is the changing popularity of some subjects.

Physical education entries were up by 10%, with religious studies and history amongst the other leading risers.

Does this mean young people are more sporty, devout and fascinated by the past than previous generations?

Possibly so. But it is probably more to do with the fact that there are now more careers in sports and leisure than there were in the past.


However, I doubt if career aspirations lie behind the rising popularity of religious studies.

A quarter of a million pupils took the half-GCSE in religious studies, and a further 141,000 took the full GCSE. I would be surprised if they were all planning to become vicars.

A more plausible explanation is that, since RE is one of the few remaining compulsory subjects in the national curriculum, students are deciding that if they have to study the subject they may as well get a qualification in it.

In this way, exam entries tend to reflect the government's hand on the tiller of the curriculum.

Another example is 'citizenship'. It is now a compulsory school subject, so it no great surprise that entries for the half-GCSE in citizenship rose this year by 21,000.

Equally - and perhaps the most worrying statistic of all - the ending of the requirement for pupils to study a foreign language after 14 probably explains the continuing decline in the popularity of French and German at GCSE.

The number of entries for full GCSEs in French and German fell by 16,634. This was not compensated for by the smaller increase (up 2,755) in those taking Spanish.

There is no comfort in the figures for the half-GCSEs either: entries are down in French, German and Spanish.

The government is placing its hopes for foreign languages in the start of its strategy for teaching languages in primary school. But this decline in languages is likely to continue for the next few years.

Tomlinson's review

French - by far the most commonly-taken language at GCSE - now attracts just 318,000 entries compared to well over twice that number taking the compulsory subjects of maths or English.

In a few years time, of course, we may no longer be able to make these year-on-year comparisons.

In October, Mike Tomlinson's government-backed review of 14-19 education will report. It will signal the end of the GCSE and its replacement, within 10 years, by a system of diplomas.

At present, the draft plans for the new diplomas do not require students to take a foreign language.

Perhaps there is still time for this to change. It could be the last opportunity to reverse the current decline in languages before French and German become endangered species in the school curriculum.

The table below shows the top 10 most popular subjects at GCSE: number of entries, proportion of the total this year and last, and the change if any. Science double award entries have been counted only once.

Subject Entries 2004 2003 +/-
Mathematics 741,682 12.6% 12.4% +0.2
English 708,160 12.1% 12.0% +0.1
English Literature 576,562 9.8% 9.8% =
Science: Double 527,017 9.0% 9.0% =
Design and Tech 437,403 7.4% 7.7% -0.3
French 318,095 5.4% 5.8% -0.4
History 230,688 3.9% 3.8% +0.1
Geography 227,832 3.9% 4.1% -0.2
Art 211,724 3.6% 3.7% -0.1
Religious Studies 141,037 2.4% 2.3% +0.1
Source: Joint Council for Qualifications

The BBC's Mike Baker
"All the work and all the waiting is finally over"

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