A new era of grade deflation was confirmed with the release of A- level results yesterday, as the percentage of students achieving the highest grades fell for the second consecutive year.
The A* grade, introduced in 2010, was awarded to 7.6 per cent of entries in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That was down from 7.9 per cent in 2012, which was itself the first fall for the top grade for more than two decades. The proportion of entries gaining grade A or better also dipped for the second year running, from 26.6 to 26.3 per cent.
The drops have coincided with a clampdown on grade inflation by England's exams regulator Ofqual. Its tougher approach has been well publicised, but the decline in top grades remains controversial.
"If grades are down, we have to ask why when so much is going on in schools and colleges to improve the quality of teaching," said Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. "Our worry is that all that effort might not be recognised."
Ofqual's approach, known as "comparable outcomes", now puts greater emphasis on pegging results to those from previous years, using the cohort's GCSE results as a reference point.
This does not mean that GCSE results will predetermine an individual's A- level grades as they are only used as a system-level guide. Significant rises in grades across the country are still permitted in theory, when there has been a "substantial improvement in teaching and learning at a national level".
This year the overall A*-E grade pass rate did rise for the 31st successive year, creeping up to 98.1 per cent.
Boys have widened their lead over girls at A*, but are still second to girls when A grades are taken into account, although the gap has narrowed. Subject choices have reinforced existing gender differences. Girls account for 71.8 per cent of English entries, with male entries in the subject down by 2.3 per cent this year and female candidates up by 0.6 per cent.
In physics, boys made up 79.3 per cent of entries and the gender gap widened, with male candidates up by 3.8 per cent compared with last year and female entries up by only 0.2 per cent.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects continued their revival in popularity. Combined entries for biology, chemistry and physics now account for 17.8 per cent of all A levels taken, compared with 15 per cent in 2009. All three were in the 10 most popular subjects for the third consecutive year.
Mathematics remains the second most popular subject, having been at number eight little more than a decade ago. This year it gained further ground and now accounts for 10.35 per cent of entries, just 0.16 percentage points behind the most popular subject, English.
"I am very pleased to see once again the rise in the numbers of people achieving A levels in mathematics and further mathematics," said Peter Main, director of education at the Institute of Physics. "Together with physics, these subjects provide an excellent route into a very wide range of important careers in science and engineering."
This is a final year of stability in England before A-level reforms begin, with the January exam sessions abolished from the next academic year and completely new A levels introduced for teaching from 2015. As TES revealed this week, many top private schools are considering opting out of the reforms by ditching A levels in favour of an international version of the qualification (see bit.lyDitchALevels).
Numbers taking the "facilitating subjects" needed for entry to the most selective universities have continued to rise. The Russell Group of elite universities welcomed the trend. "Universities need students not only to have good grades but grades in the right subjects for the course they want to apply for," a spokesperson said.
But entries for modern foreign languages - which are included on the "facilitating subjects" list - continued to fall this year. French and German fell by 9.9 per cent and 11.1 per cent respectively, although Spanish was up by 4.1 per cent.
England came top of the three individual nations for the second year running, with 7.7 per cent of entries gaining A*. Northern Ireland saw its A* grades drop for the third consecutive year, to 7.2 per cent, while Wales stayed level at 6 per cent.
For more A-level results coverage, go to news.tes.co.uk
UPS AND DOWNS
26.3% - A-level entries that achieved an A or A* grade (26.6% in 2012)
7.6% - Entries that achieved an A* grade (7.9% in 2012)
98.1% - Entries that achieved an E grade or better (98% in 2012)
7.9% - Boys who achieved an A*, compared with 7.4% of girls (8% and 7.9% respectively in 2012)
26.7% - Girls who achieved at least an A, compared with 25.9% of boys (25.8% and 27.2% in 2012)
3% - Increase in entries for mathematics including further mathematics (3.8% in 2012)
3.1% - Increase in entries for chemistry, biology and physics (2.7% in 2012).