MORE THAN a quarter of A-level entries were awarded an A grade yesterday, for the first time in the exam's 56-year history. The proportion of top grades increased by 1.2 percentage points to 25.3 per cent, the third highest rise since 1965, following a similar improvement last year.
A-grade percentages have now risen for 10 successive years and the grade is now awarded more frequently than any other. The pass rate registered its 25th successive annual rise, increasing by 0.3 points to 96.9 per cent.
The Joint Council for Qualifications, which announced the results, said they were a product of students' and teachers' hard work. Dr Jim Sinclair, JCQ director, said: "Candidates who have worked hard are getting the results they deserve." However, there were renewed complaints that the exam had become easier.
A survey of 56 university admissions tutors by ACS International Schools found 52 per cent saying they believed A-level grade inflation was behind a government pledge last year that every area of England should offer the International Baccalaureate by 2010.
The Liberal Democrats reacted by calling for an independent review of exam standards. Jim Knight, the schools minister, rejected this approach and challenged the rival party to tell him which candidate did not deserve their A-level grade.
More than double the proportion of pupils now achieve A grades than in 1990. The growth in top marks is likely to fuel complaints about universities finding it difficult to choose between undergraduates with strings of As.
However, the Government is to address this concern with the introduction of an A* grade in courses from year. It is also promising that new A-levels from 2008 will include more challenging open-ended questions.
Debate has also centred on a dramatic fall in recent decades in the number of students opting for chemistry and physics. The Confederation of British Industry called this week for ministers to do more to recruit teachers in the sciences. And the Royal Society said teachers and students should be given more freedom to teach and learn creatively.
These subjects rallied slightly this year, as the number of physics candidates increased by 0.4 per cent to 27,466, while those for chemistry rose 0.6 per cent to 40,285, its highest level since 2000. By contrast, biology applicants fell by 0.6 per cent to 54,563.
Physics numbers are still only two thirds of what they were in 1992. Chemistry now attracts 6 per cent fewer entries than 15 years ago.
Concern has also focused on the declining popularity of French and German and, to a lesser extent, geography. Yesterday's figures continued the theme, with French entries falling 1.2 per cent to 14,477, less than half the 1992 figure. Geography slumped by 2.6 per cent to 31,653. However, German entries rose by 1.6 per cent to 6,303.
Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, said the rise in A-level candidates in the past 10 years had been driven mainly by less traditional subjects such as media, film and TV studies, which now attracts more entries than physics.
Two smaller-entry subjects registered the biggest increase in entries this year, with critical thinking rising by 59 per cent to 2,008 candidates and further maths gaining 8 per cent to 7,872. The conventional maths A-level also registered a big rise, increasing by 7 per cent this year to 60,093. This means they have almost recovered from a slump after the Curriculum 2000 reforms, when dramatically low grades awarded at AS led to an exodus from the exam by students.
Across all subjects, girls maintained their lead over boys at A grade. They had higher pass rates in every major subject apart from modern languages and further maths.
At AS level, grades also improved, but less dramatically, with 18.5 per cent of entries being awarded an A, up 0.1 per cent, while the pass rate rose by 0.3 per cent to 87.8 per cent.
Entries for applied AS levels increased by 25 per cent in their second year in operation, but these courses and applied A-levels attracted only 120,000 entries between them. A-grade rates for these courses were much lower than for their academic counterparts.
The Advanced Extension Award, once favoured by universities to choose between high-flyers, remained a minority choice, with only 11,251 entries. The number of schools opting to offer the IB as an alternative to A-levels has continued its upward trend, figures obtained by The TES show. The number of UK schools in the IB diploma programme has risen by 16 per cent since July last year, from 87 to 101.
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Pass rate: 96.9 per cent
A grades: 25.3 per cent
Girls' pass rateA grades: 97.526.5
Boys' pass rateA grades: 96.223.9
Fastest growing A-level subjects 2006-07: critical thinking; further maths; other sciences
Fastest shrinking subjects 2006-7: Irish; Welsh; computing
Most popular courses at A-level: English; maths; general studies