By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website
Students have been congratulated on their achievements in GCSE exams - but concerns have also been expressed about the state of education.
Youngsters are encouraged to stay in education to boost employability
England's Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, said: "I particularly welcome the rise in the numbers achieving in GCSE English and maths.
"These are the foundations of a good education and our further reforms - including more support for those falling behind and changes to the achievement and attainment tables - will ensure that greater numbers achieve in these core skills."
But at the higher grades, the improvement in English and maths was only about half the gains across all subjects.
"The government will be disappointed that the rate of increase in English and maths is below average," said Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham.
In his annual commentary on the results, he noted that performance in maths was one of the lowest of the 40 subject categories.
It came 35th, with only subjects such as home economics, other technology and the single general science GCSE below it.
And the English result, though much better, contains a big gender gap: with 68.6% of girls' entries awarded grade C or above but only 54.7% of boys'.
"The relatively poor performance in English and maths means that some schools perhaps previously scoring highly are going to show up badly on the new 'five good GCSEs' criterion," Prof Smithers said.
The government is changing England's school league tables this year to require English and maths at GCSE grade C or above to be part of the benchmark five or more good GCSEs or the vocational equivalent.
As the BBC demonstrated after obtaining last year's figures, many schools which apparently had good league table performances came out badly when maths and English were taken into account.
The employers' organisation the CBI again this week complained about the lack of basic skills among school-leavers.
On Thursday its director-general, Richard Lambert, said students were to be congratulated on their results.
But he said too many were still not achieving the minimum standards in maths and English.
"Around half of this year's GCSE students have fallen short of learning the basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills needed in the modern world, despite 11 years of education.
"It is a sad indictment of a system which is failing to deliver these vital skills.
"Ministers must step up their efforts to tackle these problems - they have made the right noises but will be judged on delivery," he said.
And delivery will take some time.
As well as changing the league tables, the government has acknowledged that English and maths GCSEs do not at present cover functional skills.
So they are being changed to include those, and there will then be a General Diploma to recognise achievement in "five good GCSEs" including the new, uprated English and maths.
But that is not until 2011 - and the exams regulator, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is opposing the idea of such a diploma.
It says it could threaten the viability of another new scheme, Specialised Diplomas covering a range of employment sectors, due to start in 2008.
The shadow education secretary, David Willetts, said students had worked hard for their GCSEs and deserved "these excellent results".
But he complained that government targets were driving schools "to shut their doors to the world outside".
"They must not be steered into GCSEs which look good as statistics, but don't lead on to A-levels or vocational training that will allow them to fulfil their potential in the globalised world beyond the school gates," he said.
The Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman, Sarah Teather, called for a "proper debate" on whether the exam system was the best way to prepare youngsters for the outside world.
"There are holes appearing all over the government's strategy for secondary education, illustrated by the drop in teens studying languages and the shocking number quitting school altogether after GCSEs," she said.
"A wholesale shift in how we teach secondary school pupils is long overdue, with a diploma allowing pupils to choose from a far broader range of both academic and vocational courses."
The Welsh Education Minister, Jane Davidson, said students in Wales had every reason to celebrate their "wonderful results".
"Pass rates for GCSE English and mathematics have continued to improve as has performance in each of the individual sciences and the science double award," she said.
She added: "Wales is dramatically outperforming other parts of the UK in the achievement of vital key skills."
But the proportion of A* to C grades awarded in English and in mathematics was lower than in England: 58.5% against 61.6% in English and 51.6% against 54.3% in maths.