A-level results continued their inexorable rise yesterday, with a record pass rate of 97.5 per cent and some 27 per cent of entries awarded an A.
The figures were released amid the traditional row over alleged "dumbing down".
Usual allegations of grade inflation were broadened out this year as the Conservatives opened up a new front, pledging league tables that would differentiate between "hard" and "soft" A-level subjects.
But teachers' leaders mounted a vigorous defence of standards. Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, said: "Over the past decade, year on year the results have confirmed that schools are delivering the highest educational standards and equipping young people for successful and independent lives.
"Substantial independent evidence proves that A-levels are as rigorous and demanding as they have ever been."
Maths continued its revival following a dramatic decline in 2001. Candidate numbers for further maths, chemistry, physics and Spanish were also up.
But entries for biology, general studies, computing, ICT, French and German all dropped.
The rise in the overall pass rate by 0.3 percentage points was the 27th in a row. A grades were up from 25.9 to 26.7 per cent, meaning the proportion of top-rated entries has more than doubled in the past 17 years. Yesterday's increase was the 12th successive rise in the proportion of A grades.
This year saw the debut of the A* grade, but only for extended projects. Of candidates taking the dissertation-style qualification, 11.7 per cent achieved the new top grade.
Girls continue to outperform boys on the overall A-level pass rate - 98 per cent compared with 96.9 - and A grades, 27.6 compared with 25.6 per cent. But the gap continued to narrow on both measures.
Northern Ireland the top performer
Once again Northern Ireland comfortably outperformed England and Wales, with 34.5 per cent of Ulster A-level entries gaining As compared to 26.5 and 25, respectively.
At AS-level there was also a significant rise in the proportion of A grades, from 18.7 to 19.5 per cent, but the overall pass rate fell slightly from 88.2 to 88.1 per cent. More than 70 per cent of AS entries were for a new version of the exam, with two instead of three modules being used for the first time this year.
The growth in A-level maths entries increased this year with a 12.2 per cent rise to 72,475 - continuing its recovery since the Curriculum 2000 reforms made the exam harder and prompted a 19 per cent fall.
Subjects such as maths, deemed "hard" by the Tories, could rise further in popularity if the party forms the next government. It has been suggested they could be favoured in a league table points system that would penalise "softer" subjects such as media studies and dance.
But Andrea Martin, head of dance at the College of Richard Collyer, Horsham, said the proposal was "insulting".
The Conservatives say core academic subjects are disappearing from many state schools.