GCSE pass rates rose this year in the wake of the biggest shake-up of the exams for a generation.
Overall, one in five UK GCSE entries (20.5%) scored at least an A grade – or 7 under the new grading system, up 0.5 percentage points on last year, according to data published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).
About two-thirds (66.9%) were awarded a C, or a 4, also up 0.5 percentage points compared with 2017.
Just 732 16-year-olds in England taking at least seven new GCSEs scored a clean sweep of 9s in all subjects.
The rises come after major reforms in England designed to toughen up the qualifications and the introduction of a new 9-1 grading system, replacing A*-G grades.
A new grade 7 is broadly equivalent to an A and a grade 4 broadly equivalent to a C.
There is also less coursework in new GCSEs and students take exams at the end of the two-year courses rather than throughout.
The vast majority of entries in England were for the new-style GCSEs this year, with 20 subjects, including the sciences, popular foreign languages, history and geography moving over to the new system.
They join English and maths, which were awarded numerical grades for the first time last summer.
A smaller proportion of entries were awarded a grade 9 this summer – the new highest grade, compared with A* under the old system.
This follows a deliberate move to allow more differentiation among the brightest candidates.
There are now three top grades – 7, 8 and 9, compared with two – A and A*, previously.
Figures for England alone also show a rise in results.
In total, 20.3% of all entries from English candidates (for both new and old-style GCSEs) scored at least an A or a 7, up from 19.8% last year.
And 66.6% scored at least a C or 4, up from 66.1% in 2017.
Today’s results also show that across the UK:
– Boys are closing the gap with girls at top grades: 17.2% of boys’ entries scored an A or a 7, up from 16.4% last year, while girls’ remained static at 23.7%.
– UK entries for GCSE computing are up 11.8%.
– UK entries for modern foreign languages are holding steady, up 0.4% this year.
– The most popular GCSE this year was science double award, making up 14.6% of entries, followed by maths, English and English literature.
– Biology has seen the biggest increase in candidates, with entry numbers up 23%. This was followed by the other two sciences, with chemistry entries up 18.6% and physics up 17.2%.
Analysis of grade boundaries shows candidates taking higher tier maths – aimed at more able students – needed to get 20%-21% for a grade 4.
Last year, pupils needed around 18%.
Exams regulator Ofqual has said it uses statistical processes to ensure results are comparable year-on-year, and to ensure the first students to take the new-style qualifications are not disadvantaged.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “All the time and effort that has gone into reforming GCSEs, why have we done that? Because GCSEs were designed for an age when children were then maybe going into employment or going into the sixth form, so they were a gateway to other things.
“Now everyone has to stay in education to 18, so why have we got children doing at least 30 hours of exams, all the stress and all the time and all the money that is, when actually for employers, it’s what they get at the age of 18 that’s going to be important.
“That’s where the real reform should be happening. And this is looking to me like a qualification that time forgot.”
He added that there should be more focus on the youngsters who score at the lower end of the grade scale.
“Under the old GCSE, if you got an F or a G, whilst you may not have felt particularly pleased with it, there wasn’t a national narrative saying ‘you have failed to get the standard pass, you have failed to get a strong pass’, yet that is now built in.”
Young people are being “written off”, Mr Barton said, adding: “I just think we have to rethink what our education system is trying to do.”
He went on to say: “If we had a more global outlook, our starting point would be, like all of those competitors of ours, what do we need to do so that those 11 years of teachers help every child to have something, might not be a GCSE, but something.
“That’s where the reform, I think, should have been.”
School standards minister Nick Gibb said: “Congratulations to all the pupils getting their results today.
“All of their hard work, and that of their teachers, has paid off and I hope that this is the first step to a bright and successful future.
“Whatever they choose to do next, whether it is staying at school, going to college, or starting an apprenticeship, these qualifications will give them a solid base of knowledge and skills that they can build on.
“Thanks to our reforms and the hard work of teachers, education standards are rising in our schools and pupils have shown their abilities by achieving excellent results today, with so many pupils meeting and exceeding the standards we expect.”