The number of A* grades at A-level is set to rise when the results for more than 250,000 students are announced next Thursday.
The rise, in the second year that the new A* grade has been awarded, is expected to be more than 10 per cent, with one in 11 scripts receiving the top grade. Overall, the percentage of A-grade passes is expected to rise from 27 per cent to around 27.5 per cent – the highest level on record. A key reason for the rise is the growth in the number of universities demanding the A* grade as a minimum requirement for admission. Last year Cambridge and Imperial College London stood apart in demanding it.
This year, about a dozen – including Oxford, which is seeking it for maths and science courses – are insisting upon it. As a result, teachers are said to be pushing students harder.
The rise will present a headache for universities' admissions staff as they attempt to select the brightest candidates for their most popular courses, such as law and medicine. Already The Independent has revealed how Oxford and Cambridge have turned away more than 12,000 candidates expected to get at least one A* grade this year.
Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said that the A* grade was fast becoming "the new A grade".
The gap in performance between boys and girls is lower at A* grade level than for A-levels as a whole – 0.4 per cent compared with 1.1 per cent. The rate varies significantly between subjects, with nearly 30 per cent of further maths candidates achieving it, while only 3.7 per cent of those taking business studies achieve it.
Professor Smithers said the introduction of the new grade was "playing towards boys' strengths".
"You have high-performing and low-performing boys and good, hard-working girls," he said.
Overall, the pass rate is expected to nudge towards 98 per cent from its present level of 97.6 per cent. The past few years have seen slight year-on-year improvements in the overall pass rate, bringing record results for 27 years in succession.