Statistics from the Joint Council for Qualifications have confirmed that this year’s UK A-Level pass rate has risen from 96.9% to 97.2%, igniting fresh controversy surrounding so-called ‘dumbing down’ of A-Level examinations.

A-Level examinations this year total an unparalleled 827,737 entries from more than 600,000 students, 25.9% of which were an ‘A’ grade, fuelling the debate sparked in 2002 when record-breaking results led to an official government enquiry.

Keen to offset critics provoked by another year of good results, Wes Streeting, President for The National Union of Students (NUS), attributes the recent trend to a historical change in the employment market.

Mr Streeting said: "Today’s job market is incredibly competitive and offers no long-term guarantees, which puts young people under pressure that was unprecedented for their parents' generation. Young people are increasingly savvy and know that they must work harder than ever before."

Among the subjects showing increases were the Sciences with entries for Chemistry up 3.5%, Biology up 2.7% and Physics up 2.3%. Entries for Maths rose 7.5% from last year, to reach 65,239 - while further Maths was up 15.5% to 9,483 entries.

Yet despite the increase in the number of entries for these traditionally more difficult ‘stem’ subjects, there is no evidence to suggest they have impacted negatively on A-Level results.

Adamant that standards are being maintained, Schools Minister Jim Knight believes this year’s performance is the direct consequence of a solid period of government investment.

Mr Knight insisted: "This year's results are a tremendous tribute to all the effort that has gone into achieving these qualifications by students, supported by parents and teachers. They also show a good return on a decade of record investment and policies which have encouraged more young people to continue and achieve in education.”

But as results were announced, the government outlined its plans to make A-levels more challenging. Following successful pilots involving more than 1,400 pupils, ‘tougher’ A-levels will be rolled out across the country this September.

Additionally, to address criticism from elite universities that a rise in the number of ‘A’ Grades has meant facing a struggle to identify top candidates, students starting A-level courses in September will become the first to be eligible for the new ‘A*’ grade when they are awarded to those achieving more than 90% in 2010.

On the proposed introduction of ‘A*’ grades for next year's A-levels, Mr Streeting added: "NUS is concerned that the introduction of an ‘A*’ grade for next years' A-levels could tighten the already firm grip of the top state, grammar and independent schools on university places, as these institutions are likely to have better resources to coach their pupils. This could undermine attempts to attract more pupils from lower performing schools in poorer areas.

“We congratulate Oxford University for refusing to recognise the ‘A*’ until it can be sure that these new elite grades will allow fair treatment in admissions for all A-level students, wherever they are from and wherever they have studied."

The results figures released on Thursday relate to exam entries rather than candidates. A breakdown by school – or league tables - is typically published in January.

By Nathalie Edwards

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