Thousands of school pupils received their GCSE results on Thursday, with failure rates in key subjects such as maths and English higher than in recent years.
Pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were given their marks after years of disruption in the education sector brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
It is the first time that pupils in Britain have been able to sit their GCSE and A-level tests since 2019, with controversial teacher assessments replacing exam results during the intervening period.
Figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) — covering GCSE entries from pupils predominantly in England, Wales and Northern Ireland — showed top grades of 7/A have fallen from 28.9 per cent in 2021 to 26.3 per cent this year.
But this remains higher than the equivalent figure for 2019 of 20.8 per cent.
The proportion of entries receiving a 4/C — considered a pass — dropped from 77.1 per cent in 2021 to 73.2 per cent this year, higher than 67.3 per cent in 2019.
Girls continued their lead over boys this year, with 30 per cent of entries achieving a 7/A, compared with 22.6 per cent for males.
The gap has closed slightly from last year, when 33.4 per cent of female entries were awarded 7/A or above compared with 24.4 per cent for males.
Separate figures, published by exams regulator Ofqual, showed that 2,193 16-year-olds in England were given grade 9 in all their subjects, including 13 who sat at least 12 GCSEs.
While traditional A*-G grades are used in Northern Ireland and Wales, in England these have been replaced in with a 9-1 system, under which nine is the highest.
A4 is broadly equivalent to a C grade, and a 7 is broadly equivalent to an A.
Maths remains the second most popular subject, with 782,783 entries, down 3.5 per cent on 2021.
After maths, the subject with the largest percentage fall in entries was English, down by 3.0 per cent from 780,231 to 756,462.
Education Minister Will Quince told Sky News that this year's higher failure rate was "very much part of the plan".
“Over the past couple of years, we have had teachers assess grades, we have gone back for the first time to examinations," he said.
“We recognise the fact that young people have faced huge disruption over the past couple of years, so there have been adaptations in place and Ofqual have reflected on their marking and grading.”
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said this week’s results were likely to be “uneven” across schools and areas, reflecting the “turbulent circumstances” of the pandemic.
The opposition Labour Party has accused successive Conservative governments of “failing our children”, highlighting regional disparities in results.
Statistics show that last year fewer than four in 10 pupils in Knowsley, in the north-west, achieved a pass in English and maths ― more than 20 percentage points lower than the national average.
Labour contrasted this ratio with other areas, including Trafford in Greater Manchester, Kingston-upon-Thames in south-west London, and Buckinghamshire, where about seven in 10 young people passed in both subjects.
Closing the attainment gap is a “huge priority” for the government and the pandemic has "set us back on that mission", Mr Quince said.
“It is my mission as schools minister to ensure that wherever you live in our country that you have that same level of opportunity.”