Britain's 250,000 A-level candidates were last night celebrating the second biggest rise in the percentage of A grades in the history of the exam.
Figures released by the exam boards showed that 24.1 per cent of all scripts were awarded an A-grade pass - up from 22.8 per cent last year.
Girls also outperformed boys in every subject, except foreign languages, with a higher percentage getting A grades - their best-ever performance, in which for the first time more than a quarter of girls' scripts were awarded a top grade.
But yesterday's success story also served to underline the problems surrounding the exam that has been called the "gold standard" of the education system - making it even harder for elite universities to select the brightest candidates for their most popular courses. Yesterday's results also showed a 19.1 per cent increase in young people taking the Advanced Extension Award (AEA) exams - the so-called "world-class tests".
This year, there were 11,099 entries for the AEA papers - only around 1.3 per cent of the total entries but the number is growing. The rise indicates an awareness among a growing number of students that A-levels alone will not be enough to persuade universities to take them.
Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrats' education spokeswoman, said: "A-levels are simply too narrow in scope: they don't stretch the brightest pupils and they don't permit a mix of academic learning with skills training. Ministers have shown political cowardice by not embracing real reform and replacing A-levels with a secondary diploma."
David Willetts, for the Conservatives, added: "These are excellent results and we congratulate students for what they have achieved. These are real exams which place demands on students and their success is genuine and hard-won.
"Students are working as hard as ever but the exam system needs to work harder to keep pace. It needs to do better at providing the information universities and employers need to identify the students who are most suitable for them.
"That is why there is a case for an A* grade and for giving universities access to numerical marks."
Dr Ellie Johnson Searle, chief executive of the Joint Council for Qualifications - the umbrella body representing exam boards, said: "The hard work of students and teachers is clear - especially when judged against the continuing rigour and robustness of the assessment system in the UK."
Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, welcomed the "encouraging" results.
However, he warned that "the ghost of Tomlinson" was stalking the results. The former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson had recommended in a government inquiry that A-levels and GCSEs should be replaced by an overarching diploma covering academic and vocational education.
Ministers had rejected this idea - recommending instead separate specialised vocational diplomas to run alongside A-levels. As a result, more and more schools were turning to the international baccalaureate - which is recognised by many university admissions tutors in a survey as a more exacting alternative to A-levels.
"There is a cloud on the horizon," Mr Sinnott said. "It will be the baccalaureate for the elite universities and the specialised diploma for the rest. The comprehensive approach which sees A-levels as the main exam will be seriously weakened."
Overall, yesterday's results showed a 0.4-point increase in the overall pass rate to a new record of 96.6 per cent. Boys closed the gap on girls by 0.2 percentage points on the overall pass rate - though they fell further behind on A-grade passes.
Catwalk star wins place at Cambridge with hat-trick
Lily Cole, model and student, 18
The model Lily Cole demonstrated that she has the intellect to match her looks yesterday when she secured a place at Cambridge University after being awarded straight As at A-level. The 18-year-old had top grades in English, philosophy and ethics, and politics at Latymer Upper School in west London. Cole, who has earned a reported £10m, has deferred the start of her degree until next year, when she will study social and political sciences at King's College, Cambridge. "We expected her to get the grades," said a spokesman for the £12,000-a-year school, which saw record numbers of pupils winning places at Oxford and Cambridge this year. The teenager surprised the modelling world by announcing her determination to go to university even though it could cost her millions in lost fees.
Triplets score perfect results
Nikini, Madu and Wikum Jayatunga. Students. 18
Triplets were celebrating after each picked up four A-grades in their A-levels. Nikini Jayatunga and her brothers Madu and Wikum collected their perfect results from their schools in Birmingham. Nikini said: "We are all over the moon. It was pretty much what we were expecting, but it is good to have it in black and white." She will study French and Spanish at Cambridge, where Madu will be studying natural science. Wikum will study medicine at Imperial College in London. The 18-year-olds, whose parents are from Sri Lanka, attend the King Edward schools in Birmingham. Nikini, who went to King Edward VI High School (for girls) received As in French, maths, further maths and classical civilisation. In the latter she was one of the UK's top five. Madu, who went to King Edward's School (for boys) took chemistry, maths, physics and general studies, and his brother biology, chemistry, maths and general studies. Two years ago, Nikini gained 11 A*s, Wikum 10 A*s and Madu 7A*s and three As at GCSE level.
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