Girls now beat boys in every subject bar French, German and Spanish
Schools are celebrating one of the biggest rises in A grades at A-level.
The results, released yesterday, show that some 24.1 per cent of A-level entries achieved an A, a 1.3 percentage-point rise on 2005. This is the second-highest rise since 1965, when the exam was first graded.
For the first time, more than a quarter of girls' entries got an A, while the overall pass rate nudged up for the 24th year in a row, from 96.2 to 96.6 per cent.
Secondary schools welcomed the results, but they will fuel the row over standards, which intensified this week amid complaints that universities can no longer choose between high-achievers as so many have top grades.
The Joint Council for Qualifications, which published the results, said improving performance in maths explained much of the rise in As.
The proportion of maths entries graded A rose by 2.8 points to 43.5 per cent, although this follows a major change in the exam in which easier AS material was introduced in 2004.
The subject appears to have arrested years of decline as the number of entries for maths A-level rose by 6 per cent to 55,982, while those for further maths rose 23 per cent to 7,270.
But there was mixed news for the sciences, which have been the subject of two crisis reports in the past week highlighting the plummeting numbers opting to study science.
The numbers taking chemistry (up 3.1 per cent) and biology (up 1.7 per cent) rose. However, physics entries fell by 2.7 per cent.
French and German, which have also seen entries collapse in recent years, celebrated small rises in candidate numbers.
Media, film and TV studies was the fastest-growing major A-level this year, up 10 per cent to 30,964, putting it among the 10 most popular subjects for the first time.
Girls continued to dominate the higher grades, with 25.3 per cent of them getting A grades, compared with 22.7 per cent for boys, as the gap between the sexes widened by 0.2 points. They now outperform boys in every major subject except French, German and Spanish.
Entries for all subjects were also up, by 2.8 per cent, to a new high of 805,698.
The proportion of AS entries awarded an A also rose, by 0.5 points to 18.4 per cent, while the pass rate climbed marginally to 87.5 per cent.
Ministers and exams officials once again got their retaliation in first this year, anticipating cries of dumbing down from critics including Chris Woodhead, a former chief inspector of schools, .
Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, said those who cast doubt over rising grades wanted to go back to the 1950s, when few attended university.
However, the Government's favourite think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, said ministers should scrap A-levels in favour of a baccalaureate because the exam was failing to improve staying-on rates at school.
The new specialised diploma, being trialled as a vocational complement to GCSEs and A-levels for some students from 2008, has been backed by teenagers in one of the largest surveys so far of pupils' opinions on the new courses.
Nine out of 10 pupils believe the new diplomas will help them get a job, a poll of 5,473 South Tyneside pupils by consultants Kirkland Rowell found.
A United Nations report said this week that 7 per cent of under-18s may be underperforming in exams because they are having to live with violence at home.