As hundreds of thousands of teenagers receive their A-level results, a record one-in-four will be leaving school with the top grade.
Figures show that some 25.3 per cent of pupils were awarded A grades on Thursday, up from 24.1 per cent last year and representing another year-on-year improvement.
More than 805,000 candidates entered the exams in 2007, when the overall pass rate increased for the 25th year running to see 96.9 per cent achieving at least a grade E, a 0.3 point rise on 2006.
Girls have continued to out-perform their male peers, scoring better in every major subject, excluding further maths and foreign languages.
Critics have claimed that the standard of the qualification is declining, and that the number of pupils awarded As will make it hard for the top universities to distinguish the brightest pupils.
Schools minister Jim Knight praised an increase in the uptake of maths and science subjects, which account for 24 per cent of all A-levels.
Congratulating students and teachers on the results, he said the progress was "down to high quality teaching and strong investment in our schools".
"Higher pass rates mean more young people are achieving advanced qualifications that will help them fulfil their ambitions - and this is something we should all celebrate," he said.
Knight added that despite improving pass rates, the government must ensure "we have a system where more and more young people get good advanced qualifications - and we are on the cusp of vital reforms that will transform 14-19 education for the better".
"We remain committed to A-levels in the future," he said, and he argued that the A* grade, to be introduced next September, would "provide even more stretch and challenge for the brightest candidates".
Knight also pointed to new projects, diplomas and a new curriculum which he said would "place a renewed emphasis" on reading, writing and arithmetic, while enabling teachers to focus on struggling pupils.
"These are exciting steps that will give young people more choice and opportunity, and provide businesses with the highly-skilled workers they need to compete globally," he said.
Liberal Democrat schools spokesman Stephen Williams said hard-working young people "should not have their day spoiled by the annual ritual of commentators alleging a fall in standards".
But he called for a "rational debate about how difficult exams should be, but this shouldn’t take place while students are collecting their results".
"An independent review of exam standards is required to address the needs of our modern economy and mass higher education, and would maintain confidence in the system," he said.
"The fall in the number of pupils studying science at school is having a knock-on effect in universities, where prestigious science departments are being closed because [of a] lack of students. This situation is unsustainable and is ultimately harmful to our country’s best interests."
Jim Sinclair, the director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, said the scores were down to the hard work of pupils.
"The improvement of the results at A-level reflects how well students have done this year," he said.
"Candidates who have worked hard are getting the results they deserve.
"There are many positive
signs and improvements and some of the highlights are the continued
upward entry trend in mathematics, the physical sciences also seeing an
improvement and modern foreign
In Northern Ireland, there has also been an improvement in grades, with the number of candidates awarded As increasing by just under one per cent.
This means that one third of the 30,815 entrant pupils in Ulster were awarded As, compared to about a quarter on a national level.
The province's Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment chief executive Neil Anderson said the "steady improvements" were down to "the sustained effort" of students.
SDLP education spokesman Dominic Bradley welcomed the popularity of English language and maths.
"Individual students are responsible for their examination results but the hard work and dedication of teachers and the support of parents also play an important role," he said.
There was also a rise in the overall pass rate in Wales to 97.1 per cent, up from 96.9 per cent last year.
The number of Welsh school-leavers awarded As at A-level also rose by 0.2 points on 2006 levels to make up 24.1 per cent of the total.
There was also a 0.1 per cent increase in the proportion of students achieving As at AS-level, with 18.1 per cent awarded the top grade.
Education minister Jane Hutt said: "Students across Wales are celebrating excellent examination achievements this year. Their hard work has been rewarded as has the support they receive from teachers and parents.
"For A-level students, these results are the culmination of two years of dedicated study and for many, represent the starting point for further studies at university, college or work-related learning."
Story By Martha Moss from Epolitix - Thursday, August 16th 2007. Edited by GEKA from Gilbert Deya Ministries.