The skills-led Welsh baccalaureate qualification is fast emerging as an alternative to A-levels, experts claimed this week.
Their verdict came as overall pass rates this year for the bac were revealed to be just 1 per cent down on 2007, despite 21 per cent more students entering the advanced diploma.
Its increasing kudos with top English universities means more students are able to take two A-levels plus the bac, instead of three A-levels plus the bac to gain entry.
Drop-out rates for the 1,857 entrants were also significantly lower than last year. Just 11 per cent failed to complete the full diploma compared with 50 per cent when it was piloted in 2004-5.
However, the gold standard A-level, often said to be past its sell-by date, held its own.
Thanks to more female entrants, candidates in Wales were up by 2.3 per cent on 2007. The overall A-level pass rate increased by 0.5 per cent this year to 97.6 per cent - 0.4 per cent more than England.
The proportion of A grades remained the same as in 2007 at 24.1 per cent overall, down on England's by a slightly greater margin than last year.
Gareth Pierce, chief executive of the WJEC, said the rise in entries showed the A-level was still popular despite vocational alternatives. He claimed a mix of A-levels and the bac was the best combination.
But Dr Philip Dixon, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru, questioned whether A-levels still gave young people the skills they really need.
"The completion rate of the bac this year is great, and it is obvious there are no longer any teething problems," he said. "The bac is filling a niche in the skills market that the A-level no long caters for."
Brian Lightman, head of St Cyres Comprehensive in Penarth, said he believes the bac is the qualification of the future. This year 96 students achieved the full diploma in a cohort of 113.
"I think the bac will be the qualification of choice for students in Wales in the future," said Mr Lightman. "The question of whether to replace A- levels with something else is no longer relevant; the Welsh bac will provide the framework."
Professor David Reynolds, from Plymouth University, said the bac results were encouraging. "Whereas England appears to have abandoned plans for the international baccalaureate (IB), Wales seems to be going down its own bac route, maybe eventually replacing A-levels with it," he said. "The Wales and the World module is impressing many over the border. This qualification gives breadth."
The bac is being rolled out gradually, under the Assembly government's control. It hopes a quarter of students in Wales will be taking the qualification by 2010. It is more vocationally based than the IB, with which it is often confused.
The advanced bac, equivalent to an A-grade A-level, is made up of two parts: the core, with the four components of key skills: Wales, Europe and the world, work-related education and personal and social education, along with options of two A-levels, level 3 NVQ or Btec pass.
Lee Hennessy, head of undergraduate admissions at the University of Bath, said the Welsh bac was viewed "very positively".
"We are getting a clearer view on it as a qualification," she said. "When it first started, some departments said they wanted three A-levels plus the bac, whereas now our typical offer is two A-levels plus the bac."
Girls made up 56 per cent of A-level entries in Wales this year and continued to perform better than boys. But there was an improvement boys' achievement at AS-level, narrowing the gap with girls.
There was encouraging growth in the number of candidates in maths and chemistry at both A and AS-level, and an increase in the numbers of candidates for physics at AS.
There was also a welcome boost for modern foreign languages results in Wales after last year's disappointments. A-level grades increased dramatically, although entries were down overall.
The number of students gaining A grades in A-levels increased by 9 percentage points in Spanish and by 6 percentage points in German.
Results by text, page 5.