Leading article: A positive learning curve

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Two trends emerged from this year's record crop of A-level results in England and Wales – one hopeful, the other ambiguous. The hopeful one is that there has been a swing back to traditional subjects, such as maths, sciences and foreign languages. This suggests that the message is getting through to schools that reputedly difficult subjects are worth taking and improve pupils' chances of admission to a good university and employment thereafter.

The increased take-up of maths is particularly encouraging, with more candidates than at any time in the past. Chemistry, physics and biology have also increased in popularity. A decade of decline has been reversed.

On the arts side, there has been a welcome rise, albeit small, in the take-up of foreign languages. Although German continues its decline, the numbers taking French and Spanish have risen. Minority languages, such as Chinese, Arabic, Russian and Polish are also on the rise. How far this reflects greater encouragement given to migrant children to capitalise on their language skills, and how far it reflects a more enterprising approach to language teaching in schools may be worth a closer look, but in either event, it is a promising development.

The ambiguous trend is the revelation of a stark North-South divide, with a much greater improvement in overall performance in the South of England than in the North, and a particular gap between the South-east and the North-east. It is the first year the figures have been broken down regionally, so it is not clear whether the disparity is new or ingrained. But a separate breakdown shows that, as last year, the biggest improvements were at selective schools and in the independent sector.

It would be consoling to believe that the greater improvement in the South-east represents a return on vastly increased state investment. If, however, it reflects the greater proportion of independent and selective schools in the region, then the distinction relates less to geography than to the type of school. In that case, questions need to be asked about how effectively the money has been spent. As so often, the provision of one new set of statistics shows a need for even more data in order to interpret them.

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