Next week's A-level results are likely to show yet another improvement in overall pass rate of between 1 and 2 per cent, according to private estimates from exam boards.
Even more discussion has been generated this year than normal because the new modular A-levels are thought to have boosted the results. It is the first time such courses, which allow students to re-take sections of the course they have initially failed, have played a significant part in the English, maths and science results. The final exam accounts for only 30 per cent of the marks.
At the same time, the Government has announced it will accept Sir Ron Dearing's recommendation to limit re-sits for each module, to ensure modular courses are not seen as softer than traditional A-levels. Such courses have proved particularly popular in English, maths and science. This year they will account for as many as one-fifth of the 750,000 A-level entries, and two-thirds of maths and science results.
The School Curriculum and Assessment Authoritysays they are unlikely to have any dramatic impact on a pass rate which has in any case been steadily improving by around 1 per cent a year. It has risen from 78 per cent in 1981 to 84 per cent in 1995.
The exam boards are insistent that this year's results will not be established until next weekend. Kathleen Tattersall, chief executive of the Northern Examination and Assessment Board, said: "There's no firm foundation for the speculation that there has been a 2 per cent rise in the pass rate. The exam boards have not as yet collated the data."
There is little research on the effect of modular courses which, until this year, have affected only 4 per cent of entries.
The only study undertaken, at Newcastle University, suggested that the average modular grade in mathematics was a C, compared with a D on traditional courses. But the sample was necessarily small.
Candidates can re-take chunks of the course, but those heading for failure are unlikely to enter the final exam and will be excluded from the figures.
Responding to criticism that re-taking modules diluted A-level quality, Kathleen Tattersall said conventional A-levels allow unlimited re-sits, but cost more.
One interesting feature will be the effect of modular courses on maths and science results. These have been steadily improving - but at the expense of specialisation. Increasingly it has been only the brightest pupils embarking on such courses, perceived to be difficult. Modular courses, with their short-term objectives and room for re-takes, may cater for a wider ability range.