More than half of teenagers failed to score a strong pass in both their English and maths GCSEs this year, official figures show.
School leaders warned that youngsters could be left feeling demoralised if they do not achieve a grade five in the key exams and said there are alternatives to “the annual rite of consigning large numbers of young people to a sense of failure”.
Provisional national figures, published by the Department for Education (DfE) show that 57% of teenagers at state secondary schools in England did not get a grade five or above in English and maths GCSE this summer.
A grade five is considered a strong pass by the Government and is used to hold schools to account for performance.
Just over a third (35.6%) of state-educated pupils did not score at least a grade four, broadly equivalent to a C, in both English and maths GCSEs, the figures show.
Teenagers who score a grade four in these subjects do not have to re-sit the GCSEs, while those who gain grades below this level must continue to study them post-16.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the figures show that more than 190,000 young people “fell short of achieving at least a grade four ‘standard pass’ in GCSE English and maths at the end of 12 years of schooling”.
“Every year this ‘forgotten third’ is a feature of our exam system not by accident but because it is baked in by the mechanism used to distribute grades.
“We cannot continue to accept that one-third of pupils must ‘fail’ in order that two-thirds succeed.
“The Government has raised the bar another notch by describing a grade five as a ‘strong pass’.
“Well over half of young people – 57% this year – do not attain this benchmark in GCSE English and maths despite all the effort they have put into their studies.
“It is a measure designed to raise standards but in fact risks leaving students feeling demoralised even though they have done really well.
“And it does not make sense in any case because the distribution of grades is roughly similar from one year to the next wherever the bar is set.”
Mr Barton added that an ASCL commission has proposed a passport covering English and maths that would be taken by young people between the ages of 15 and 19.
“We believe this would provide a viable alternative to the annual ritual of consigning large numbers of young people to a sense of failure,” he added.
Today’s figures also show that two in five teenagers (40%) were entered for the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).
This is a measure that recognises pupils who study a suite of core academic subjects at GCSE – English, maths, science, history or geography and a foreign language.
The proportions of pupils taking all five parts of the EBacc is up 1.6 percentage points on last year.
Pupils were least likely to take the languages element of the EBacc, the DfE’s data shows.
While 80.6% of pupils entered for the humanities part, taking history or geography GCSE, nearly half as many (46.6%) took a language.
Girls outperformed their male classmates at GCSE, the Government figures show.
Almost half (46.4%) of girls scored a grade five or above in both English and maths, compared to around two fifths (39.7%) of boys.
In addition, nearly half (45.9%) of girls entered for all parts of the EBacc, compared to just over a third (34.3%) of boys – a gap of 11.6 percentage points.
There was also variation in GCSE performance by region, with the highest-performing local authorities concentrated in London and the South, and the lowest-performing in northern and Midland areas.
Under major exam reforms in England, a new numerical grading system has been introduced with GCSEs graded from nine to one.
The vast majority of GCSEs were graded under the new system this summer.
A grade four is broadly equivalent to an old grade C, and a grade seven broadly equivalent to an old grade A.