Minister says that record grades show we are living in a golden age for teaching. Graeme Paton reports.
The proportion of students passing A-levels climbed to more than 96 per cent this week, prompting Lord Adonis, schools minister, to herald a "new age of the teacher".
As critics complained that the rise showed the so-called "gold standard" has been compromised, Lord Adonis gave his explanation for the 23rd consecutive year-on-year increase: teachers are now better at their job.
"Teaching and leadership in schools are significantly improving, so we should expect exam results to improve too," he said. "It would be a major cause for concern if they didn't."
He said that the proportion of secondary school teaching that inspectors rated "good" or "excellent" had risen from 59 per cent in 1997 to 72 per cent in 2004.
Boys continue to close the gap on girls in both the number scoring the top marks as well as the percentage of overall passes.
The percentage of boys gaining a C grade or better climbed by 1.2 points this year, to 66.7 per cent, while the figure for girls rose just 0.7 points to 72.6 per cent. Some 21.5 per cent of boys gained an A grade, up 0.5 points on last year, while the percentage for girls rose by 0.2 points, to 23.9 per cent. Boys' results also improved faster at AS-level.
The results will be seen as a further justification for Government initiatives to close the gender gap.
However, yet another overall increase in results - albeit smaller than in previous years - has fuelled claims that A-levels are getting easier.
Reform, an independent think tank, said in a study that standards have dropped in the past 15 years and students achieving a grade E in maths in 1988 would get a B today.
Results published by the Joint Council for Qualifications yesterday showed that there were 783,878 A-level entries this year, a rise of 17,631 on last year. The pass rate rose 0.2 points, to 96.2 per cent, and the percentage of A grades by 0.4 points, to 22.8.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the growth in A grades rendered the exams almost useless to universities and employers and that the system needed radical reform.
Experts warned that the scramble for a university place prior to the introduction of pound;3,000 top-up fees in 2006, coupled with the record pass rate, could overload the university clearing system.
The number taking modern languages dropped as record numbers flocked to so-called "easy" A-level courses. Entries for German fell by 7.7 per cent, to 5,901, and French by 4.4 per cent to 14,484. But take-up of Spanish continued to improve with 6,230 entries in 2005, up 4.4 per cent.
The biggest migration was from computing and ICT courses, which lost 14.7 and 7.6 per cent of students, respectively. Meanwhile, only 28,119 students sat A-level physics, down by around 5,500 since 1998, although biology and chemistry entries grew.
Sir Digby Jones, director general of the Confederation of British Industry said that failure to produce enough scientists and linguists could compromise Britain's economic success. His comments were echoed by the British Chambers of Commerce which called for more vocational options to be promoted to A-level students, as more than half of small firms in the service sector have struggled to find staff with the right skills.
The biggest rise in entries was for religious studies (see box), followed by political studies, which had 11,218 entries this year, up by 9.8 per cent. Psychology, music and media studies were also among the fastest-growing courses.