Four-fifths of students who sat GCSE exams in Northern Ireland this year got a pass grade, it emerged yesterday. Following another year of improving results, more pupils than ever before were awarded the top A* grade, rising by 0.7 percentage points to 10%.
The percentage achieving the pass rate standard - A*-C grades - also increased slightly by 0.4% to 79.5%.
The average pass rate across the UK was 66.3%, although this year was the first year of a new numerical grading system. It is being used by English examining boards in three subjects, which makes comparisons less simple than in previous years.
In Northern Ireland, girls widened the performance gap over boys, with 83.5% of all female entries gaining a grade C or above (up 0.6 percentage points on last year), but male entries achieving the same grades improved to 75.4% this year (up 0.1 percentage points on 2016).
A small number of students (around 3%) in Northern Ireland received results in numerical format this year, with 9 being the highest mark and 1 the lowest. The new scale applies to English literature and maths qualifications offered by a number of English exam boards.
Some of the top achievers in Northern Ireland yesterday included Aoife O'Boyle, from St Dominic's in Belfast, who received 11 A*s and an A, Royal Belfast Academical Institution pupil Nkosinathi Khumalo, who got 10 A*s and an A, and Sarah Hand, from Victoria College in south Belfast, who received 10 A*s.
Nkosinathi (16) told the Belfast Telegraph that yesterday morning had brought relief after a nervous wait during the summer for his grades. He plans to go on to study A-Levels in physics, further maths, chemistry and computers and then go on to university to study computer science.
Sarah (16) said her long-term ambition is to be a reconstructive plastic surgeon and she plans to study maths and the three sciences at A-level, before going on to study medicine. She said she had had a dream about getting top results. "So it is literally a dream come true," she said.
There is currently no Education Minister, so a civil servant at the Department of Education congratulated students here.
"Performance of local students in school examinations - A-levels, GCSEs, and their equivalents - is a tribute to the efforts of students, teachers, parents and carers," they said.
"Whilst the focus at this time is on results, it is also important to remember that education is about so much more than exams. The calibre of our young people, their personal qualities and attributes, are not to be summed up just by their exam results."
Former Education Minister Peter Weir described the GCSE results as offering a "firm educational base for the future", but noted there was room for improvement.
"Sections of our society which suffer from underachievement need to be continued to be addressed, but these results show that what must happen is targeted interventions rather than wrecking the system," he said.
"It is also important that Northern Ireland students will continue to have choice in their GCSE subjects and exam boards, and that we have retained both choice and comparability with students across the water, ensuring that local pupils are not disadvantaged."
Northern Ireland's exams body, CCEA, will not be switching to the numerical 9-1 grading which is being introduced by English exam bodies. In 2019, new CCEA letter grading will be introduced, with the Grade A* aligned to the Grade 9. In addition, a Grade C* will be introduced and aligned with the Grade 5.
The average pass rate of students who sat GCSE exams across the UK