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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 August 2004, 19:23 GMT 20:23 UK
A-levels show rise in top grades
A-level results, Colchester
Pupils in Colchester phone back the news about their A-level results
A-level results have improved again - with more exams being passed and more entries achieving the top grades.

This year's results, from more than three quarters of a million exams, show that boys are beginning to catch up with higher-achieving girls.

The pass rate has risen 0.6 of a percentage point from 2003 to 96%, and 22.4% of entries received an A-grade - up from 21.6% last year.

Examiners, head teachers and education ministers rejected claims that this was

because exams were getting easier.

"Don't let anyone tell you that standards have dropped because more of you have done well. This is simply a myth," said School Standards Minister David Miliband, as results showed the 22nd consecutive increase.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Miliband attacked the "national disease" of being cynical about improved exam results.

A-LEVEL RESULTS 2004
96% pass, up from 95.4% last year
A grades: 23.7% girls, 21% boys; last year 22.9% girls, 20% boys
Fastest increasing subjects: Religious studies, law
69% of all results are A to C grades
40% of young people take A-levels
Total A-level entries: 766,247

But because so many entries are now achieving the highest grades, there are to be discussions this autumn about how universities can distinguish between the best students.

A review of the curriculum by former chief inspector, Mike Tomlinson, has already proposed that pupils might write an extended essay, which could be used in university admissions.

And there have been suggests that universities could be given students' individual percentage marks - rather than an overall grade.

Head teachers' leader David Hart said he could see no reason why universities should not be given this information.

And the director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, Ellie Johnson-Searle, said that such detailed information about exam performance was available if universities wanted it.

The Conservative education spokesman, Tim Collins, said that he backed the publication of students' individual marks - and said that it was preferable to universities setting their own admission tests.

'Denigration'

This year's results show that more entries than ever were awarded a pass - with 96% achieving a grade A to E, up from 95.4% last year.

Joshua Scotton (18) from Derby College with his results
The long-awaited results arrive at Derby College

But examiners were resolute that this was not an indication of "dumbing down" or "grade inflation".

Dr Johnson-Searle said the "grades awarded are absolutely a reflection of what students have earned" - and she denied that standards were lower or that there were "softer" subjects which would give higher grades.

This was supported by David Hart, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, who said improvements were the "result of better teaching and hard work by students".

The National Union of Students also attacked the "constant denigration" of improving results.

"Any other country would be celebrating the educational achievements of its students ... but we seem incapable of doing that," NUS president Kat Fletcher said.

Boys improving

Boys in particular have shown improvements this year - narrowing the gap with girls in both the number of passes and A grades.

MOST POPULAR A-LEVEL SUBJECTS
English
General studies
Maths
Biology
Psychology

"Many secondary schools have put a lot of effort into raising attainment for boys - and inevitably it will flow through to results," said Mr Hart.

Measures had included putting boys into single-sex classes, he said. And the improving results showed that boys were getting the message that they could not be "lazy and complacent".

There were also variations within the number of A grades in different parts of the UK, with Northern Ireland achieving 30%, Wales 23.5% and England 22.1%.

This year's results also reveal trends in popularity for different subjects - with growing interest in religious education, law, psychology and media.

DECLINING A-LEVEL SUBJECTS
Computing
Information technology
German
Science
Physics

There were further declines in the number of students taking French A-level - now down to 15,000 - and a slump in candidates for computer-related A-levels.

While "traditional" subjects such as English and maths remain among the most commonly studied, there are now more A-level students taking psychology than chemistry and more taking media studies than French.

'Insults'

Students are also receiving AS-level and vocational qualification results - with the exam boards saying that AS-level results showed a slight improvement on last year.

Although applauding the achievements of A-level candidates, Conservative spokesman Tim Collins said that the government should not be dismissive of doubts raised about exam standards.

"We have to recognise that there are a growing number of academics and employers who have concerns - and those concerns need to be genuinely addressed and not just greeted with childish insults ... saying anyone with any questions are elitists," said Mr Collins.

Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis called for the current exam system to be replaced with a Baccalaureate system, which would allow pupils to "mix and match" different science, arts and vocational subjects.




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