Schools were celebrating this week as two GCSE records were broken.
The annual results yesterday revealed that nearly one in five entries was awarded an A or A*, while the proportion of good passes rose to a new high.
There was also a new record for the number of pupils achieving A*-C, suggesting that schools are getting better at helping their students achieve the top two grades.
The good news was offset by continuing complaints about the quality of the exam, and by the collapse in the number opting for modern languages.
A total of 19.1 per cent of GCSEs were awarded A*A, a 0.7 percentage-point increase on last year and the 11th successive rise, results for nearly 600,000 teenagers showed. In 1994, when the A* was introduced, only 13 per cent achieved the top grades.
The proportion of A*-C grades rose from 61.2 to 62.4 per cent, the eighth successive rise, while the pass rate (the percentage of entries gaining at least a G) rose from 97.8 to 98.1 per cent. But the pass rate is still lower than it was in 1992.
Boys closed the gap slightly on girls. Some 59 per cent of male candidates got a C or better, compared with 66 per cent of girls, the gap closing by 0.5 points this year.
Schools will scrutinise English and maths results especially carefully, as they are now particularly important for league tables, which rank schools by the proportion getting five A*-Cs. From this year, a pupil will only be deemed to have hit this target if their good grades include a C or better in both English and maths.
In English, the proportion achieving a C rose 0.7 points to 61.6 per cent, while in maths, it rose 0.9 points to 54.3.
Numbers choosing languages continued their seemingly inexorable decline, with big falls in entries for all three major subjects.
French entries were down 35,951 on last year, dropping to 236,189. For the first time for 15 years, fewer than 100,000 pupils took German (down 14 per cent to 90,311). Even Spanish, which has grown in recent years, fell by 0.5 points to 62,143. Entries for French and German have slumped by a third in five years after ministers scrapped compulsory key stage 4 language study in 2004.
Pupils are also turning away from double science towards the generic single science course and separate GCSEs in biology, chemistry and physics. While double-award entries fell by 3 per cent to 959,578, the single courses were all among the top 10 fastest-growing GCSEs. Nine out of 10 entries in physics and chemistry were awarded a C or better.
Other fast-growing subjects this year were statistics, where entries rose by a third to 68,331; media, film and TV studies (up 26 per cent to 57,521); and business and communication, (up 18 per cent to 41,640).
Entries for general national vocational qualifications were up by 6.5 per cent, despite these courses being phased out by next year. GNVQ computing entries rose by 19 per cent.
The GCSE continues to get bad headlines. Private schools are increasingly moving away from it while employers, this week, said that high passes did not guarantee that pupils could do basic English and maths (see analysis, right).
Schools in Cornwall have been trying an alternative qualification, the Cornish bacclaureate, taken alongside GCSEs. It recognises work experience, sporting and voluntary work.
New College, Leicester, once dubbed the worst school in Britain, is celebrating after the proportion achieving five A*-Cs jumped from 9 to 26 per cent.