Record numbers of students embarked on a frantic scramble for a dwindling number of university vacancies last night.
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The number seeking a place through clearing was 189,992, compared with 185,223 last year.
The number of courses still with vacancies, however, fell from 33,105 a year ago to 29,409.
The fate of slightly more than 100,000 applicants is still unknown – leaving open the prospect of clearing numbers growing further still.
The University and College Admissions Service (UCAS), was besieged by calls from students seeking advice and an online service helping students to track whether they had got a place crashed. At the height of the rush, the website was receiving 450 calls per second – four times the peak recorded last year.
UCAS immediately apologised to candidates but one computer expert said: "This is poor performance from UCAS. A-level results day isn't a freak event that leads to an unexpected traffic surge. It's a set date."
Figures showed more than 384,000 candidates had confirmed their places by mid-morning yesterday – up from 379,000 last year.
Several universities said they would not be joining clearing this year as they had already filled their places. The University of Essex said it would accept only students with A grades for the few places it had left.
Union leaders warned that those who ended up without a place would find little help available for them to plot an alternative career.
New figures published by the public service union UNISON showed only 15 out of 144 councils still run a full careers service after government cuts.
"Students should be celebrating their results and planning their futures," said Dave Prentis, its general secretary. "Instead, they are hit with huge tuition fees, rising unemployment and drastic careers-service cuts.
"A good -quality careers service can make or break the future of a young person. We need to know how the Government will tackle this lost generation and prevent careers-service cuts from hitting an already rocky economy."
The rush to find places followed the 29th consecutive year of improved results. The overall pass rate went up from 97.6 per cent to 97.8 per cent and there was a slight rise in the percentage of A* grades awarded, from 8.1 per cent to 8.2 per cent.
However, the proportion of A grades was steady for the first time after 15 years of rises. It remained at 27 per cent.
The National Association of Head Teachers called the results the "ideal antidote to gloom about riots".
The results, though, confirmed the widening gap in standards between students from differing backgrounds.
Private school pupilss accounted for 13.4 per cent of A-Level entries but were awarded 30 per cent of A* grades. Fewer state schools, too, were putting pupils forward for traditional academic subjects, such as maths, science and languages – the subjects most prized by elite universities.
Private schools accounted for 29 per cent of A-Level languages entries – the figure was the same for further maths.
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group – which represents 20 of the most elite research universities – said: "We remain concerned that too few students from some state schools take or get the top grades in science, maths and languages A-levels, restricting their options at university and closing off certain career paths.
"The attainment gap between state and independent schools shown in today's results demonstrates the continuing difficulty our universities face as they work to attract students with the most talent, potential and ability from all backgrounds."
Ministers are considering forcing schools to publish the proportion of their pupils who go to Oxbridge or Russell Group universities.
Schools Minister Nick Gibb said: "It is a depressing waste that so many bright and talented children still miss out on top universities and the best jobs because they don't have the same opportunities as their wealthier peers."
Chinese lifts the gloom
The take-up of Chinese at A-level offers the one bright spark in an otherwise depressing picture of language provision. Figures show the numbers have risen by more than a third from 2,372 last year to 3,237. According to exam boards, this is due to English-born pupils taking an interest in the subject rather than just Chinese speaking immigrants.
However, traditional languages are still in decline with French take-up falling from 13,907 to 13, 196 and German from 5,562 to 5,166. Spanish, after firmly ensconcing itself as the second most popular language in schools, has plateaud with 7, 610 candidates this year compared with 7,671 in 2010.
Case study: Success erases riot memories
Nikita 18, a student at the Haringey Sixth Form Centre, lives on an estate on Ferry Lane in Tottenham, with her mother, a dinner lady, her father, who is unemployed, and her 13-year-old brother. It was near her home that Mark Duggan was shot by police two weeks ago in the incident that sparked the London riots. Though Nikita was on holiday, her father and brother had to stay at home for their own safety as violence and looting overtook their neighbourhood. Nikita, who went to school at the nearby Gladesmore comprehensive before moving to Haringey is the first girl in her family to take A-levels, following in the footsteps of her brother who is studying medicine at the University of Southampton. Nikita, who got an A* in psychology, a B in English Language and a B in history, said she was "so happy" with her results, which mean she can fulfil her dream to study law at Leicester University.
Growing up on the fringe of one of Bradford's toughest council estates, Nathan Sutcliffe, 19, considered giving up on education and joining the Army. But spurred on by his grandparents, who live near the Allerton Estate, a crime hot spot, he yesterday became the first person in his family to get his A-levels and is set on going to university to study music and becoming a performing-arts teacher.
Nathan has lived from an early age with his grandparents Harry Sutcliffe, 66, a retired lorry driver, and June Sutcliffe, 64, a former kitchen worker. Nathan was awarded a triple distinction in performing arts and a star distinction in music at Dixons Allerton Academy.
"Because of the area I live in I never had anywhere except school to study. I used to stay after hours, often till 8pm," he said. "When I told my grandad about my results, he said, 'That deserves a pint,' and that's how I plan to celebrate."
Q&A: 'I've had a bit of a disaster... What should I do now?'
Q. What should I do if I just miss out on getting the grades to confirm a provisional offer from a university?
If you really have missed out by just one grade, it is worth checking what the situation is with your university. Sometimes they will allow you in, although with increased competition this year the chances of that happening will be smaller.
Q. Is it worth going through clearing to find a place?
The answer has to be yes. The number of courses with vacancies may be smaller than last year – 29,000 as opposed to 33,000 – and the number eligible for a place greater – 185,000 rather than 180,000. That is still a lot of courses to be filled, though.
Q. Universities Minister David Willetts said those currently still seeking a place should consider other options such as going part-time or an apprenticeship. Do you agree?
These are options. Certainly the number of firms taking on A-level students straight from school has grown. In instances like KPMG, if you have an A and two Bs, they can sponsor you through university. However, such places are limited, and if you are intent on pursuing an academic career and think you can afford it, it may be an idea to try again next year – the numbers are bound to be down because of the rise in fees.
Q. Should I give up on going to university if I have done really badly in my A-levels?
Not necessarily, you could seek to go on a foundation degree course as a pathway to a full degree or, in this case, accept Mr Willetts' advice. One of the problems in the UK is that we are too snooty even about well- respected vocational courses.
Q. If I do decide to try again in a year's time – or possibly two years if yesterday's report that most universities will have to slash their fees by 2013 turns out to be correct – what should I do in the meantime?
Something that will impress university admissions tutors. Volunteering or taking a gap year to work on a project overseas are examples of the kind of thing that will go down well and give you a more rounded CV.
Q. And if I really think I cannot afford the increased fees next year?
Remember there's always the Open University as an option. It is planning to charge "only" £5,000 in fees and you can earn while you learn if you study with them. You have to be disciplined, though, to complete the coursework at home and fit your study in around your job if you decide that is the route for you.Reuse content