'Yet again, the students and their teachers have produced results which should silence those who peddle doom and gloom about this country's education system,' David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said.
Baroness Blatch, the Minister of State for Education, said the results were 'a credit to students and their teachers' and 'a continuing success story'.
A total of 761,906 subject entries were made this year, a slight increase on last year, in spite of a 4 per cent decline in the number of 18-year-olds.
Baroness Blatch, admitted that the take-up of science subjects was 'disappointingly low', but argued that, 'with science now part of the national curriculum, children will be better prepared and will become more familiar with the subject at an earlier age'.
Educationists and scientists also voiced concern about the continuing decline in those opting for science subjects, particularly physics, and the implications for the country's economy.
While the numbers taking arts subjects increased or held steady - English topped the table, taken by 12.1 per cent of all candidates sitting exams - all the sciences, maths and economics showed a drop in numbers. Business studies, technology and religious studies showed increases, but were still only taken by a small proportion of candidates.
Brian Davies, at the Institute of Physics in London, said surveys had shown that physics-based industries increasingly underpinned the UK economy, and if the decline at A-level continued these industries could be faced with severe shortages of qualified staff, 'particularly in small and medium-sized entrepreneurial enterprises'.
Pippa Senior, also at the institute, said the declining numbers were 'depressing', although she pointed out that physics grades were getting better, with 48.9 per cent gaining grades A to C this year, compared with 46.4 per cent last year. She said physics syllabuses needed to be 'more exciting and imaginative', teachers should be kept abreast of topical developments, for instance in particle physics, and more girls should be targeted and encouraged to take the subject: 78 per cent of last year's physics candidates were male.
Peter Briggs, executive secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, said science suffered from a negative image 'of odd people in white coats rather removed from reality', and also tended to be perceived as more difficult than other subjects. 'There needs to be a greater willingness on the part of working scientists to communicate with schools, and the general public,' he said.
Not only is science an expensive subject for schools, in terms of equipment and laboratories, it has also suffered from a shortage of specialist A-level teachers - although Dr Briggs said the situation was less severe now.
A further question is whether GCSE science - which the majority of pupils take as a course combining physics, chemistry and biology - is the best preparation for single-subject science at A-level. The National Union of Teachers and the NAHT said that this 'mismatch' needed to be investigated.
Mr Hart proposed a system whereby pupils took five A-level subjects, divided between science and arts. 'If we can also solve the problem of teacher shortages, this system might mean that we see a recovery of entry in maths and sciences.'
Win Griffiths, Labour's education spokesman, called for a comprehensive review of post-16 education provision. 'What is needed is a broadly-based curriculum, which prevents over-specialisation and meets the needs of those studying, and employers,' he said.
The clearing season, page 16
Leading article, page 31