Despite a record number of A-level entries, there is evidence that the 'gold standard' is declining in popularity. Nicolas Barnard reports.
A record number of students passed a record number of A-levels this year, but A grades levelled off, the result, it is thought, of a huge growth in modular courses.
As students across England and Wales celebrated the grades they needed for university or resigned themselves to the scramble of clearing, figures showed the overall pass rate climbed to a new high of 87.1 per cent - up 1.3 per cent on 1996.
But the proportion of students getting A grades remained unchanged at 16 per cent, ending the steady rise of the past eight years.
There was also good news in the sciences and computing, subjects which saw an increased number of entrants after years of decline. Biology entries were up by 9 per cent, chemistry by 5 per cent and physics by just over 2 per cent.
There has been an unusual lack of criticism from traditionalist sceptics. Last December's joint report by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Office for Standards in Education, Standards Over Time, appears to have allayed some fears about devaluation of the A-level "gold standard". It found little evidence that standards have fallen over the past 25 years.
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said he hoped students' delight would not be "undermined by the antics of a gaggle of right-wing diehards".
The increase in modular courses is seen as one reason for the rising pass rate and levelling off of A grades. Numbers taking the modular exams are thought to have doubled since last year. They make up around 30 per cent of the results issued yesterday compared with 15 per cent last year.
Business studies, geography and government and politics have been added to the list of modular courses which last year were mainly limited to English, science and maths.
Early analysis suggests that passes tend to be higher on modular courses. But it is harder to get a grade A - possibly due to the difficulty of sustaining a top-notch performance over two years.
Kathleen Tattersall, convener of the Joint Forum for GCSE and GCE dismissed suggestions that A-levels might be losing their popularity.
Overall A-level entries rose by 5 per cent this year to a record 776,000. Last year's rise was 1.2 per cent. But this year's cohort is 9 per cent larger than the 1996 year group, suggesting there has been a real-terms decline in the popularity of A-level at the expense of general national vocational qualifications and the International Baccalaureate - still relatively rare but attracting more candidates each year.
The health of the old-style AS-level also continues to decline - due in part to the "blight" put on it by Sir Ron Dearing's review of post-16 education, which highlighted flaws in the courses and recommended change. Although entries were up by 6.6 per cent this year, last year saw an 11 per cent increase. And only four subjects attracted more than 3,000 candidates.
"The continuing upward trend in the entry again demonstrates the attraction of the A-level qualification to students who recognise its value as a passport to higher education and employment," she said.
"The results are a clear reflection of candidates' attainments and of the boards' maintenance of high standards in the interest of students and the educational system."
Tony Millns, spokesman for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, said the improving popularity of science is linked to the national curriculum: "The curriculum emphasised science and information technology - one reason for that was to increase the number of people taking science through to A-level and university," he said.
But the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education voiced continuing concern. "The lack of interest in maths and science at A-level affects take-up of these and allied subjects in universities and colleges," said senior official Derek Betts.
Even bigger rises in popularity were recorded by business studies - up 14.6 per cent, psychology (14 per cent) and general studies (15.2 per cent). But entries continued to decline in economics (15.1 per cent) and French (5.7 per cent).