The improvement was driven mainly by boys, the proportion of their entries awarded at least a C grade rising twice as fast as was the case for girls. The gap between boys' and girls' results is now 7.1 percentage points. Overall, A*-C grades surged by almost a percentage point to a record 63.3 per cent.
The statistics offered continuing grounds for concern, however. Entries for French plummeted by 8 per cent, while for German numbers fell by 10 per cent. But the proportion of good passes rose well above the national average.
School league table results, which now hinge on the proportion of pupils achieving five or more good passes including English and maths and are announced in January, may also struggle to improve this year.
This is because the percentage of pupils achieving a C or better in English rose only 0.6 points to 62.2 per cent. Grades overall were higher in Northern Ireland, where 72 per cent of entries were at C or better, than England and Wales, at 63 per cent each.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the current curriculum and exams system was irrelevant to today's pupils. She said: "It is a shame that this year's hard-won achievements do not guarantee the skills needed to meet the challenges of living in the 21st century."
Jim Knight, schools minister, appeared to question the unending scrutiny of results, saying: "I hope ... this season's statistics can be used for nobler reasons than simply as a stick to beat the education sector with."
Boys closing gender gap, page 4
Leading article, page 16