The dramatic year-on-year increase in the A-level pass rate appears to be over, with this summer's results showing the smallest improvement since the 1980s.
Sixth-formers have turned in major academic improvements every year since 1982, when the rate was only 68 per cent. Last summer almost nine in 10 candidates reached at least grade E.
But the latest results have halted that trend and are scarcely different from those of 1997, according to official figures released this week: a pass rate of 87.8 per cent and an improvement of only 0.2 points.
Professor Alan Smithers, who has advised the Government on qualifications, believes that the proportion of successful candidates is reaching a plateau.
"If the pass rate had continued rising at more than 1 per cent a year, then we'd soon be having more than 100 per cent," he said. "We're reaching an irreducible number of people taking on the challenge of A-level and not succeeding."
In fact, he points out, the official figures almost certainly underplay the latest rise by comparing this year's provisional figures with last year's final figures. The eventual increase will be closer to 0.7 per cent - still well below the increase of previous years.
Entries have risen by 2.7 per cent to 823,263. But this is no greater than the rise in the number of 18-year-olds in the country.
Numbers achieving the politically sensitive top grade A are 0.6 per cent up, slightly higher than last year, when the proportion of A grades showed no increase at all. Nearly 17 per cent of entrants come away with an A, substantially higher than the 11.4 per cent getting A in 1989.
The most popular subjects were English, general studies, maths and biology. Those with the largest entry increases were business studies, computing, psychology and technology. Entries for physics, chemistry and maths remained steady.
This year also marks the first decline in the totals taking the AS- level exam - worth half an A-level. The qualification has never taken off and is about to be reformed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
The convenor of the Joint Forum for the GCSE and GCE, Dr Ron McLone, said:
"The rise in entries shows that the A-level is the valuable qualification it's always been. We have one of the most reliable and objective examination systems; one of the most heavily regulated systems in the world."
Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett said: "I am confident that these results reflect real achievement."
In Northern Ireland, the pass rate has risen from 90. 7 to 91.7 per cent. The number of grade As has also gone up from 14.5 per cent in 1993 to 19.6 per cent.
l Dr Alastair Pollitt, an exam board researcher, has denied claiming that A-levels and GCSEs are getting easier. A report in the Sunday Telegraph is wrong, he said this week. In fact, his research covered one syllabus in one subject and one year: A-level maths in 1986.