Experts believe that the inexorable rise in the pass rate is slowing as it nears 90 per cent. It had been rising at 1-2 per cent a year, but this year was up from 87.6 to 87.8 per cent. The proportion of entries awarded grade A rose 0.6 per cent and that for A-C grades 0.8 per cent.
Exam-board officials said A-levels' popularity continued to grow, with a rise in entries - 2.7 per cent - greater than the increase in 18-year- olds.
David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, congratulated candidates on their success. He underlined his belief that successive rises in the pass rate did not mean standards were falling. "I am confident that these results reflect real achievement. The exhaustive study undertaken by Ofsted and others found no evidence that standards had fallen," he said.
Directors of leading companies were unconvinced. Ruth Lea, head of the Institute of Directors' policy unit, said: "[Employers] see people coming to them with a fistful of A-levels and even a degree who do not have the basic skills that would make them employable."
Dr Ron McLone, convener of the joint forum for the GCSE and GCE, said changes in results reflected students' ability. "The standard of A-level is constant. It is rather like the London marathon. More people complete it and more complete it faster but that doesn't mean it is getting easier".
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