One examination entry in seven now merits an A grade, compared with one in eight two years ago. There has been a corresponding drop in the number of E grades.
The better-than-expected results led to a renewal of criticism from the political right that A-levels are getting easier and that their currency is being devalued. However, ministers praised this year's exam candidates for their exceptional performance.
Provisional figures today show a 1.8 per cent rise in the pass rate this year to 82.9 per cent, whereas in 1990 just 77 per cent of entries were successful.
The number of entries fell by only 0.4 per cent this year despite a 4 per cent drop in the number of 18-year-olds, but exam boards warned that the number would have to increase rapidly to meet government targets. It is hoped that by 2000, 50 per cent of school leavers will gain the equivalent of two A-levels. The proportion reaching such a level now is about 27 per cent.
There were some signs of a recovery in the popularity of maths and science subjects, which have suffered a steady decline in recent years. A government inspectors' report published earlier this week blamed poor teaching for their lack of popularity.
Both biology and chemistry saw slight increases in their entries this year, to 50,000 and 41,000. And although maths and physics attracted fewer students than last year, the decline seemed to be easing off: there were 62,000 candidates in maths this year compared with 66,000 last year and 72,000 in 1992, and 36,000 in physics this year compared with 38,000 last year and 41,000 in 1992. While ministers said the exam was a trademark of educational excellence, others said the pass rate showed a real decline in standards, and that the exams were getting easier. No one knows whether standards are rising or falling. Comparisons with exams a decade or more ago are difficult because of the change in the proportion of the age group involved: in 1951 only 3 per cent sat A-levels compared with nearly one-third today.
Sheila Lawlor, deputy director of the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think-tank, said the exam boards should allow a full and independent scrutiny of syllabuses, papers, scripts and marking schemes so that they could be compared with those from previous years.
She said the advent of coursework had led to a decline in standards, adding: 'The problem is the exam boards have not proved themselves to be reliable with regard to grade inflation.' She believed the numbers of candidates doing well at GCSE had increased without any evidence that standards were rising, and 'if what is happening in A-levels is repeating that pattern, one doesn't have much confidence in them'.
Dr Philip Evans, head of Bedford School and an experienced chief examiner, has suggested that grades may be drifting upwards because of human pressure on examiners not to fail a greater number of candidates than last year. The change each year may be tiny but the cumulative effect is significant.
Andrew Holden, assistant chief executive of the Northern Examinations and Assessment Board, denied that grades had been allowed to drift upwards. He said that the GCSE exam, with its large coursework element, had made students more self-reliant and therefore better prepared for A-level.
'I think we are getting candidates who are better able to cope with A-levels. It is true that the GCSE has brought an incredible increase in motivation, and I would expect that to work its way through,' he said.
The good A-level results will make the next few weeks difficult for those students left without a university place. More will have met the requirements for their first choice, but this means that those who have not done so will find many courses full.
This annual scramble for places, has been condemned by both politicians and educationists. Admissions officials would rather see a system in which students applied to university after receiving their results, and then started their courses in November or even January.
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