A-level passes set for record

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A record pass-rate for A-level is expected to be announced tomorrow but the rise in the proportion of students getting top grades has levelled off.

Thousands of candidates will also learn tomorrow whether they have achieved the grades they need for university entry.

Official figures are understood to show that the overall pass-rate for candidates who took A-level this summer is up just over 1 percentage point on last year's figure of 86 per cent. The pass-rate for the exam has gone up by between 1 and 2 per cent in each of the last 16 years. Last year the rise was 1.8 per cent.

But the improvement in the proportion getting A grades has slowed. In 1989 the pass-rate was around 75 per cent and the percentage of entries awarded A grades was only 11.4. Since then, the proportion of A grades has gone up steadily by on average 0.7 per cent a year.

Exam officials believe that one explanation for this year's figures may be the increasing number of modular examinations, in which pupils sit a series of tests throughout their two-year course plus one final exam.

Pass-rates are higher for modular exams because students can resit them or drop out if they fear they will not make the grade. However, as last year's results suggested, top grades are harder to achieve because students have to maintain a consistently high performance over two years. This year the proportion of modular entries has doubled from 15 to 30 per cent. Last year modular courses were confined mainly to English, science and maths. This year they include geography, business studies, government and politics and economics.

A study from Newcastle University suggested that candidates who took modular exams were likely to receive higher grades.

But exam officials say that modular exams do not provide the whole explanation for the higher pass-rate since only a third of exams are modular.

One explanation may be that girls' performance at A-level has been improving rapidly. Another may be that the proportion of young people in the top two social classes, who tend to do better in the exam, has increased by 20 per cent.

The improved A-level grades are likely to fuel the annual controversy over whether the exams are getting easier. Traditionalists maintain that standards have slipped but teachers say that both they and their pupils are working harder. Research published last December showed that standards have remained broadly the same, though there is less emphasis on some topics than in previous years.

The rise in the pass-rate this year means that, since more students will fulfil their conditional university offers, fewer course vacancies will be available in the annual clearing process which matches students with courses.

UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, has warned that the trend could add to the chaos predicted as thousands more students than usual apply late through clearing to snatch the last free university places before fees are introduced in 1998.

Students planning to take a gap year are waiting to hear whether they will be eligible for limited exemptions from tuition fees being offered by the Government.

Consultations with university leaders and voluntary bodies were under way yesterday as the Department for Education and Employment finalised details of the exemption scheme.