The brief era of grade deflation among the top A-level performers came to an abrupt end this week, as the percentage of entries receiving A* grades increased for the first time in three years, figures reveal.
But the combined proportion of A and A* grades continued to decline and a tiny 0.1 per cent drop in A*-E passes signalled the first decrease in the overall pass rate since 1982.
Three decades of annual increases in the proportion of exams awarded the highest grade came to an end in 2012, and that proportion dropped again last year. But this year the percentage of A* grades rose from 7.6 per cent to 8.2 per cent.
However, the proportion of entries achieving A or better dipped for the third successive year to 26 per cent, down from 26.3 per cent in 2013. The A*-E pass rate fell to 98 per cent, after 31 successive years of steady increases.
This year's results arrived against a backdrop of significant change for schools, most notably the end of January resits, which effectively means a switch to linear, end-of-course assessment. The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents the main exam boards, said the overall results were "very stable" but warned that individual schools could experience some turbulence.
Last week, TES reported that headteachers were "hugely worried" about how this year's raft of GCSE and A-level reforms would affect schools' performance.
"It is possible that, due to the removal of the January series, some schools and colleges may experience volatility in their results, depending on how they have adapted to the changes," said JCQ director general Michael Turner. "But it is important to remember that standards have been maintained and, despite the changes, are comparable with previous years."
There was a slight increase in the number of pupils taking A-levels in the "facilitating subjects" needed for entry to the most selective universities. The decline of foreign languages also appears to have been halted, with the overall proportion of entries in French, German and Spanish remaining steady. At AS-level, more than 1,800 additional candidates took Spanish.
Boys widened their lead over girls at A*, but are still in second place when A and B grades at A-level are taken into account, although the gap has narrowed.
This year's subject choices have reinforced gender differences among pupils. Girls account for 71.8 per cent of English entries, but female candidates make up just 21.1 per cent of those taking physics.
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said that although students who relied on "effort rather than ability" were disadvantaged by the linear course structure, high-achievers may have benefited from the shift in approach.
"The more able students with a strong grasp of their subject are likely to have done just as well, if not better, in the end-of-year exams," he said.
The increase in A* grades was also likely to have been affected by the surge in popularity of subjects where students are more likely to get better results, Professor Smithers added. For the first time in recent years, more students took maths, in which 17.3 per cent of students achieved the top grade, than English, in which only 6.2 per cent of candidates were awarded an A*.
However, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the impact of scrapping resits was "very regrettable".
"Having to do the whole thing in one go puts enormous pressure on students," he said. "The modular approach allows them to consolidate their learning. Surely we want more students to achieve higher standards?"
This year's cohort of students taking AS-level exams was the first to have been affected by the English Baccalaureate GCSE performance measure. As a result, several EBac subjects surged in popularity, including geography, up 16.9 per cent, and Spanish, up 14.8 per cent.
Despite only A-level candidates in England being prevented from taking January resits this year, they still managed to outperform their peers in Northern Ireland and Wales on A* grades. However, when As were also taken into account, Northern Irish students came out on top, with 29.9 per cent of entries achieving one of the top two grades.
Percentage of entries achieving A*
Cut dissection out of A-level biology, says expert
A-level biology students should not be forced to dissect animals when the new curriculum is introduced next month, according to one of the country's leading scientists.
Michael Reiss, professor of science education at the University of London's Institute of Education, said he was strongly in favour of teachers using computer simulations and video clips of animal dissection, rather than compelling pupils to carry out dissections themselves.
Under reformed A-levels, biology students will be expected to perform dissection, with the AQA, OCR and Edexcel exam boards requiring students to demonstrate the safe use of equipment.
Exam board specifications state that animal dissection should include examining the "external and internal structure of the mammalian heart", although schools will be given the option to choose plant dissection instead.
Professor Reiss, former director of education at the Royal Society, said: "Much can be learned from the dissection of plant material. If they want students to undertake animal dissections, this must be optional, with a worthwhile alternative provided for students who do not wish to participate.
"Do not use material that requires animals to be killed for the purposes of the dissection. And use the session as an opportunity to talk about respect of animals and to discuss ethical issues."
Sarah Cox of the Society of Biology said hands-on experience of dissection was important. "It's much more visual and engaging, much more memorable, than reading a text, watching a video or looking at a diagram," she said. She acknowledged that some students may be squeamish. "It'll be challenging for some," she said. "That's something that they need to overcome."