Thursday, August 20, 1998 Published at 13:21 GMT 14:21 UK
Row over 'dumbing down'
Does the rising pass rate mark a real increase in achievement?
Business leaders are divided over whether A level exam standards are falling.
The head of policy at the Institute of Directors, Ruth Lea, said: "If these results do show that grade inflation is coming to an end, that is good news.
"They 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."
By contrast, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said rising A level pass rates were "good news for industry".
The chairman of the CBI's education and training affairs committee, John Roberts, said: "It's really encouraging that so many young adults are getting passes and going on to get the skills they need for employment.
"Examining boards have introduced more rigorous quality controls so the improvement almost certainly indicates an increase in effort from students and teachers, not a drop in standards."
Traditionalist educationalists insist exam standards are falling, while teachers' unions and examiners argue to the contrary.
"There is considerable academic evidence to that standards have fallen over time," he said. "It's a nonsense to suggest they haven't."
But the General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, David Hart, said: "The 1998 A-level results destroy the fallacy that standards are falling.
"The time has come to end the long-running debate about whether the exams are easier. It does scant justice to the achievements of the students and their teachers."
The General Secretary of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, Paul Mackney, said critics who claimed the education system was being "dumbed down" were displaying their ignorance and elitism.
"The current A level curriculum offers a far wider intellectual challenge to today's students, and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority itself says that there is no evidence of a fall in standards," he said.
The Convenor of the Joint Forum of the GCE and GCSE, Dr Ron McLone, drew a direct parallel with improvements in sporting performance.
"Take the London Marathon," he said. "More and more people now complete it, and more and more complete it faster.
"I don't think that means that running the London Marathon has got any easier."
Dr McLone said exam league tables contributed to rising standards, with schools competing to achieve better results.
Pupils also benefited from new aids to learning such as computer study-programmes and access to the Internet, he added.
Students receiving A level results at Gosforth High School in Newcastle upon Tyne were in no doubt on the issue.
Sarah Lacey, 18, achieved an A and two Bs in English, history and Spanish and is now preparing to go to Leeds University where she will study English and philosophy.
"Anyone who says A-levels are getting easier wants to try taking them again," she said.