Only the continued decline in the numbers taking science marred the satisfaction of ministers and the examination boards in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
But as anxious candidates wait to hear their grades today in the knowledge that one in five students fail to gain any qualification from their two-year course, there have been renewed calls to promote vocational qualifications and reform A-levels.
Despite falling numbers of 18- year-olds who make up two thirds of candidates, entries rose 4.5 per cent, faster than in previous years. The pass rate increased by 1.6 per cent to 79.6 per cent, with nearly half of students gaining grade C or better. One in 12 scored an A grade, a slight improvement.
Further decreases in the numbers taking physics (down 4.9 per cent), chemistry (down 3.9 per cent) and mathematics (down 3.5 per cent) continued a serious downward spiral, said Gillian Wood, assistant general secretary of the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association.
It reflected a shortage of specialist teachers and a lack of confidence by young people as they see universities and companies cutting research and development programmes, she said.
The drop in economics was worse at 6.9 per cent but biology increased by 4.5 per cent.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said 20 per cent of A-level candidates had nothing to show for their efforts. New vocational qualifications were desperately needed, he said.
John Day, convener of the eight examination boards, insisted that standards were maintained from year to year and the results represented improved performance.
But John Marks, recently appointed to the School Examinations and Assessment Council that advises ministers, said the question of laxer marking and easier A-level syllabuses was now an 'issue of concern'. 'It's suspicious that there's been a substantial increase in those getting passes,' said Dr Marks.
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