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A-levels are heading in the right direction

Not only are youngsters taking more difficult subjects at A-level, but the number going on to an apprenticeship is also on the up

The number of top-graded A-levels may have dipped slightly but there is much to be welcomed in this year’s results.

In fact, even the dip in A*s reflects a positive trend, namely that more students are taking trickier “core” subjects rather than easier options such as media studies or PE.

There are still black spots. The slump in modern languages continues, with French down nearly 10 per cent and German by even more. Gender is also an issue, not because girls dropped behind boys in the A* band, but because the male/female, science/arts divide remains so entrenched.

Overall, though, the direction of travel is the right one. Not only are youngsters taking more difficult subjects at A-level, but the number going on to an apprenticeship, rather than university, is also on the up.

The economic downturn is no small factor; in the face of far from clement conditions, young people are more focused on jobs than they were. Higher tuition fees are also playing a part, as is the greater clarity from universities about what they require of prospective candidates. Finally, the role of Education Secretary Michael Gove (in giving schools a prod towards core subjects by introducing a league-table measure focused on them) and universities minister David Willetts (in encouraging children to go for what suits their chosen career, rather than focusing on academia) cannot be ignored.

Taken together, the signs are of a more focused education sector. That said, progress is only relative. As the Chambers of Commerce warned once again this week, too many school-leavers still lack basic literacy, numeracy and communications skills. And with youth unemployment not far off 20 per cent, even better-skilled youngsters may themselves be struggling. There is, then, still a long way to go.