The proportion of teenagers scoring top grades in their GCSEs saw one of the biggest increases on record this year, figures showed today.
Nearly one in five - 19.1% - of grades awarded were either As or A*s, a rise of 0.7 points on last year and the second biggest increase since the A* was introduced in 1994.
The proportion of exams awarded at least a grade C also rose sharply - by 1.2 percentage points to 62.4% - the second largest rise since 1992.
But improvements were slower in English and maths and the results showed a further dramatic fall in the popularity of French and German.
Overall, fewer than 2% of scripts were failed this year, according to the results from the Joint Council for Qualifications, representing the exam boards.
Ellie Johnson Searle, JCQ director, said: "Students and their teachers can be justifiably proud of the improved results this year, with good performance overall and in the key subjects of English and mathematics."
This year was the second largest rise in A*-C grades in the past 14 years, beaten only by last year's increase of two percentage points.
Dr Johnson Searle highlighted a "welcome increase" in exam entries for sciences this year.
The JCQ said boys were catching up with girls across the grades - narrowing the gap at grades A*-C by half a percent on last year, although girls remain far ahead of boys.
In English, the proportion of exam entries awarded at least a C grade rose by 0.7 points to 61.6%.
In maths this year 54.3% of exams were given at least a grade C, up by 0.9 points on 2005.
There were also rises in the numbers of students opting to study separate sciences - physics, biology and chemistry.
Of the major subjects with more than 100,000 exam entries, religious studies rose most dramatically, up by 12,165 entries or 8.2% on last year.
The popularity of media, film and TV studies continued to grow.
The subject saw exam entries rise by more than a quarter - 25.9% - over last year to 57,521 in 2006.
Education Secretary Alan Johnson welcomed this year's improvements.
He said: "Nothing is more important than the 3Rs and no Government has done more to improve attainment in these basic skills.
"Today's GCSE results are evidence of the continuing standards in our schools.
"I congratulate pupils and teachers for their hard work and commitment - they should be proud of their achievements.
"I particularly welcome the rise in the numbers achieving in GCSE English and maths.
"These are the foundations of a good education and our further reforms -including more support for those falling behind and changes to the achievement and attainment tables - will ensure that greater numbers achieve in these core skills."