In 2000 there were 401,685 total students in the 16-19+ age bracket for all secondary schools in the UK. This has risen to 528,395 in 2011, an increase of 24% in total student numbers. This is not necessarily an increase in Full Time Equivalent (FTE) numbers, though part time students are a tiny minority of all students.
By contrast in the same period the number of full course GCSE exams sat (GCSE's as we would talk about them) has dropped from 5,481,920 to 5,207,790.
This is an actual drop of just over 5%, but a real terms drop of 27.8% compared to the 2000 figures. Students in the UK are taking over a quarter less normal GCSE exams than they did a decade ago. More students than ever that are noted as being in education that year are not taking a full GCSE (or are taking significantly less full GCSE's).
I don't say this as an absolute negative, as the routes through education have changed, IGCSEs have started to pop up, and there are always vocational routes that could be getting more popular (I don't have data to hand to say they are or not). However GCSE short courses (half length, half reward), though more popular, in real terms have only increased in sittings by 2%; Entry level (Certificate of Achievement) sittings have cratered. To me, where these students are going isn't sitting in plain sight, and outside of a significant number of students taking far fewer exams, it simply seems that less students are taking exams full stop.
Now the current headlines are about the rise on last year of pupils getting 5 good GCSEs. In the UK 69.8% of exam results were A*-C, a rise of 0.8% on 2010. Good news?
The trouble is that the total exam sittings in 2010 was 5,378,159. What we have here is a situation where in 2010 each student was sitting 10.8 GCSEs (from 496,850 pupils), yet in 2011 they were taking 9.8, one less exam each. Clearly less students are taking exams, with short courses also dipping in number of sittings.
Is it that students are dropping out across the spectrum of ability? Are schools truly making their brightest and most capable students cut down on the number of exams as well as the least able? Statistics from 2000 through to 2011 show that the percentage attaining only the lowest grade "U", a complete fail, has dropped from 2.2% to 1.2%. G has gone from 3.3% to 2%, F from 7.1% to 4%, E from 12.1% to 7.8% and D from 18.3% to 15.1%.
Simply a case of education working well a decade on? The increase in percentages in the top results as well may suggest this...but the drop students taking exams is a shadow hanging over everything. If those students, deemed not to be good enough to take exams (and clearly not going elsewhere to take different qualifications), were refactored in to the figures then the "rises" in attainment look a little different. It all comes down to whether students now not doing GCSEs are bright students simply taking a different route (such as the International GCSE) or not.
It's interesting to note, however, that the Department for Education is saying that IGCSE's could account for a 2.6% increase of A*-C results in England (may be less in the UK as a whole).
If the increase in pupil numbers was mirrored in the number of exams taken (with those not taken counted as grade D or less) then the number of Grade C's would be (difference on 2010 results in brackets) 22.4% (-3.5%), B's 19.6% (-1%), A's 13.9% (-1.2%) and A*'s 7% (-0.5%). This is the equivalent of just 62.9% A*-C passes, a 6.1% drop from last year.
I'd like to see how this spreads across subjects, but if the reports are right then it is in core subjects that we are seeing this kind of decline of participation too, and that it isn't just the more "woolly" subjects that are being dropped in an effort to provide a more focused education on the subjects employers really want to see.
To me it seems clear that our rise in attainment over last year, and since 2000, is more down to a manipulation of which students are taking the exams. If an equivalent number of exams were taken in 2011 as 2000 then the attainment of A*-C grades would have fallen from 57.1% to 53.1%. Even including the IGCSE effect, this is not an improvement, and is still a very possible decline.
Note: This article is based on figures to do with GCSEs, but doesn't necessarily follow alternatives.