THE annual improvement in the headline A-level results always provokes debate about whether the exams are getting easier and animated discussion on the relative performance of young men and women.
Although there has been little relative change in the results of different types of schools between 199798 and 199900, the percentage of pupils at independent schools gaining three or more passes has declined slightly - from 84.9 per cent to 84.4 per cent.
This decline seems to have been entirely at mixed schools, which now have a smaller percentage of pupils with three or more passes than mixed selective schools within the state system.
One broader measure of A-level attainment that is not usually available is the average points score per student. Overall, there has been little change in average score in the three years between 199798, when it reached 17.6 points per student, and 19992000, when it was marginally lower at 17.5, just under three C grades.
There were some regional differences during these three years but, more important, the figures show that girls' scores improved while boys' scores got worse. In six of the nine Government Office regions of England, boys had a lower average points score in 19992000 than two years previously.
London and the East Midlands were the only exceptions. In London, boys' scores improved slightly (0.1 of a point each year). In the East Midlands there was a rise of 0.3, followed by a fall of 0.2.
In the South-west there was no change. In the Yorkshire and Humber region, boys' scores fell by 0.4 each year, resulting in an overall decline from 17.9 to 17.1.
By contrast, girls' scores rose over the three years in seven regions. However, in the North-east they declined during this period, markedly so between 199899 and 19992000. And in Yorkshire and Humber there was one year of decline followed by another where there was no change.
Both regions also saw a decline in boys' scores. Over the three years, the gap between boys' scores in the best and worst regions narrowed from 3.5 points to 2.8 points. For girls, although there was an overall improvement, the gap between best and worst regions widened from 2.4 points to 2.6.
These statistics do not suggest that A-levels are becoming easier but they do merit further investigation.
John Howson John Howson is managing director of Education Data Surveys. Email firstname.lastname@example.org