The number of pupils gaining straight As in their A-levels has fallen for the first time on record, it emerged yesterday, following the introduction of more challenging questions this year.
An analysis of this summer's results showed a surprise drop in the number of young people achieving three or more straight A* or A-grade passes. Only 12.4 per cent received at least three top grade passes, compared with 12.7 per cent last year.
Teachers' leaders said this was the first fall since an analysis of individual students' achievements was first recorded more than a decade ago. For the past 28 years, the A-level pass rate has risen relentlessly.
The figures also showed a fall in the number of candidates receiving two A-level passes – from 95.1 per cent to 93.6 per cent. It was suggested that this had been prompted by the decision to ask more searching questions in this year's examinations. In their final exam papers, candidates were given more open-ended questions in an attempt to uncover their critical thinking skills.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "The exams were definitely more difficult this year. The figures show they were still getting A grades in the subjects they were most confident in, but it was possibly that more demanding final exam where they were affected."
He added: "People always talk about [the exams] getting easier but I think this proves this isn't the case."
The fall coincides with a rise in the overall number of A-grade passes, showing that many more young people are achieving one or two A grades. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment at the University of Buckingham, described the development as "extremely interesting".
"We have all tended to think that – as the percentage of A grades goes up – so does the percentage getting three A-grade passes," he said. "It is good news, because it shows many more people are achieving at the highest level in their best subjects."
The results will also make the task of university admissions staff slightly easier as they sift through applications for popular courses such as law and medicine.
Yesterday's analysis showed a rise in the percentage of pupils receiving five A* to C-grade passes including maths and English to 53.1 per cent – the first time the figure has broken the 50 per cent mark.