Examination boards have moved swiftly to counter claims of lack of rigour as this year's results reach yet another statistical peak, reports Linda Blackburne.
Exam boards in England and Wales this week congratulated teachers and their 300,000 students on a record 84 per cent A-level pass rate which confirms the upward trend of the last five years.
Sport studies and psychology were the subjects which had grown the most rapidly in popularity this year. But economics, political studies and sociology are going out of fashion, the entry statistics show.
Publication of this year's A-level results comes four days before the General National Vocational Qualification results, to be published on Monday.
The percentage of students gaining A to E passes increased by 0.9 compared with 1994, and the proportion obtaining A to C grades increased by 1.1 per cent. Grade As increased from 14.8 to 15.6 per cent of the grades awarded. There were 4.2 per cent fewer 18-year-olds this year than in 1994, but the number of A-level entries fell by only 1 per cent.
Total entries have increased by 6 per cent in the last five years, despite the number of 18-year-olds having fallen by 22.6 per cent.
The AS-level pass rate has followed a similar trend since its introduction in 1989, although this year there was no change in the overall pass rate of 73.2 per cent. The proportion of grade As rose from 9.6 to 10.3 per cent and the A-C percentage increased by 2.5.
The A-level pass rate in 1990 was 77 per cent and has been rising by about 1 per cent every year since, to 84 per cent this year.
The AS-level pass rate in 1990 was 64.3 per cent, rising to 73.2 per cent this year.
Dr Michael Halstead, chief executive of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, said in a joint statement from the four English and the Welsh A-level boards: "Students and teachers are to be congratulated on this year's results. The A-level standard has been maintained and marginally more have achieved it."
The upward trend in the overall pass rates for A and AS-levels has in previous years prompted right-wing commentators and traditionalists to claim the exams are not rigorous enough.
The statement, however, said: "The A-level boards do not act alone, and never have. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has an essential role to play. It is responsible for approving all A-level syllabuses and monitoring the rigorous standards set through a continuous programme of intense scrutinies, comparability exercises and probes - along with the Office for Standards in Education - thereby ensuring the consistency of the grades awarded across the boards and subjects from year to year, and over time, as did the earlier Government agencies which they have now replaced."
Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector for schools, told the House of Commons education select committee in April that both OFSTED and SCAA were talking to the exam boards about consistency of grades.
He told MPs that students should not have to suffer the annual debate about whether their results were of less value than in previous years.
SCAA said this week that two reports were being prepared for the autumn - one on grade consistency, and another on whether some A-level subjects such as the sciences, modern languages and general studies were more difficult than some arts subjects.
But the exam boards strenuously defend the record results. George Turnbull, director of public relations at the Associated Examining Board, which collated this year's A-level results, attributes the continued improvement to: * fear of unemployment; * pressure on youngsters to gain the right qualifications; * competition with graduates for jobs; * better-informed teachers; * the parents' charter; * "freedom of information" on policy between schools and boards; * the publication of exam mark schemes; and the boards' decision to step down from their "ivory towers".
"We have been pouring money into education like a bottomless pit for years. Why are we so shocked when there is an improvement?" he said.
The schools minister Lord Henley, who welcomed the record results, said he was satisfied the A-level system had "stringent quality controls" and accepted standards were being maintained.
The issue was now being considered as part of Sir Ron Dearing's wide-ranging review of 16 to 19 qualifications, he said. Sir Ron, SCAA's chairman, is due to make his final report next Easter.
This year, the boards have included a wider range of subjects in their published results to reflect new fashions in subjects taken. Sports studies has only 7,686 entries, or 1.1 per cent of the overall entry, but has increased its entry by 36 per cent since last year. Psychology is also popular, with an increase of 13 per cent over last year.
"Vocational" subjects - including business studies, law and photography - have collectively increased their entry by 81 per cent to 94,049 since 1990.
But geography entries dropped by 6 per cent on last year; French and history by 5 per cent; and maths and physics by 4 per cent.
Even larger decreases in entries were shown for economics (15 per cent), political studies (10 per cent) and sociology (5 per cent).
AS-level entries have fallen for the second year running. David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "This year's entries are pitifully low and indeed have fallen back to 1991 levels. The time has come to seriously question whether AS levels should be allowed to continue in their present form."
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Manchester University, said that the short-term popularity of some subjects could pall if universities were unwilling to accept them.