The pupils no longer ask 'did you get any As?', but 'how many As did you get?'

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Cheadle Hulme school in south Manchester was straining rather harder than necessary to sell its academic achievements yesterday.

Cheadle Hulme school in south Manchester was straining rather harder than necessary to sell its academic achievements yesterday.

At a morning press call, the star A-grade students were asked to shin up a step-ladder, the perpendiculars of which form the shape of a very familiar letter. But in the school dining hall where results slips were dispensed, the question was not so much, 'What did you get?' as 'How many did you get?'. A grades, that is.

Such was the surfeit of As that only Lucy Saunders-Evans was a true nonpareil. She set a new record for the 145-year-old school with the kind of return which many children dream of at GCSE level: six As.

Lucy collected her results at 8.30am but two hours later, as she was invited to shin up a lamppost and take her place at the step-ladder with her precious slip of paper, she was unaware of her record-breaking status. "I generally gave myself Friday nights and Saturdays off and went to the pub," said Lucy, 18, whose grades came in chemistry, maths, further maths, physics, general studies and music. She studied the latter out of school hours and found it tough.

"Music is much more talent-based, and you can either do it or you can't," she said.

She will spend the summer working before going to Cambridge to read computer sciences at St John's College.

"Going to Cambridge has been my ambition for a while," she said. "One of the things that had the biggest influence on me was that the director of computer sciences is a woman."

Three of the four pupils who secured five As were also girls, reinforcing the view that boys are being surpassed at this level, although first calculations showed that the school's girls were only 0.3 per cent ahead grade-for-grade.

Louise Baillie was another of the star Cheadle girls - her four As, achieved despite some struggles with pure maths.

She has wiled away the last weeks knowing that anything less than three As would compel her to seek a university place through the clearing system. Four universities had refused her a place to study veterinary science - except Cambridge, where she will now go.

Analysing the particularly impressive grades of his English, history and economics departments yesterday, acting head teacher Andrew Chicken concluded that the girls tended to mature academically earlier and work harder.

"The boys' culture can militate against sustained academic achievement," he said.

Christian Fahey, whose two As and a B has ensured him a place at King's College, London, was more forthright.

"The girls are not cleverer. They just work harder and they're louder," he said.

At a school where 59 per cent of 120 candidates achieved A and B grades (marginally lower than the record breaking 63 per cent and 69 per cent of the previous two years) anything less than a C was hard to find, although Frances Collier was philosophical about her E.

Exactly which of the chemistry essentials had she struggled to grasp? "The general concept really. I re-sat one module but it's very exam-oriented," she said

Nevertheless, she is another of the 1,400-pupil independent school's female winners. An A in general studies and Cs in history and biology will allow her to study a sports science degree course at Edinburgh.

It's not quite what the philanthropic businessmen of Manchester had in mind when they established the school in 1855. But then again the pupils it was originally built for - orphaned children of warehousemen and clerks - have also changed a bit over the years.