In 1997-98, more than one in five 17-year-olds in England passed three or more A-levels, or their equivalent in advanced GNVQs. If those gaining between two and three passes are included, the total rises to well over one in four of the age group.
Students who can get through the gate at 16, and stay the course for two more years of study, are clearly reaping the benefits.
Among those who were successful were some 30,000 pupils in independent schools. These account for almost 14 per cent of all successful candidates, and for more than 21 per cent of all candidates from the schools' sector.
More than 30 per cent of independent-school candidates achieved scores of 30-plus points, or the equivalent of three grade As at A-level.
Not surprisingly, pupils at selective schools did nearly as well. Boys in such schools outperform girls in terms of the percentage gaining the highest number of points; but then more boys in selective schools also gain low scores. However, there are about five-and-a-half times as many state-school pupils taking A-levels or advanced GNVQs in comprehensive schools as there are in selective schools.
More than 10 per cent of these comprehensive pupils achieve 30-plus points.
Students in sixth-form colleges do slightly better than students in comprehensives. On the other hand, students studying at this level in FE colleges rather than sixth-form colleges achieve few high grades.
With universities such as Oxford concerned about the percentage of their intake which comes from fee-paying schools, how easy will it be for them to alter the balance in favour of the state sector ?
Such universities might find sixth-form colleges and selective schools easier to target than comprehensives, as there are fewer of them. Whatever method is used to allow the most able to attend certain universities, relying only on A-level scores will not be enough, particularly in subjects where good teachers are in short supply.
There are fewer geographical differences in results at A-level than at GCSE. Among maintained schools, only the North-east and London regions had mean scores below the national average for such schools. Generally, as at other levels, boys performed less well than girls.
It will be August before we will see whether those who sat these exams this summer have improved standards even further. If they do it is to be hoped that teachers get the credit rather than the exam system being blamed for a decline in standards.
John Howson is fellow of Oxford Brookes University and runs an educational research company. E-mail: int.edu