The relentless rise in A-level passes showed signs of slowing as university clearing began this week. The number of passes at grades A to E rose by 16,089 to 697,362 this year. This means that candidates passed 87.8 per cent of all A levels - up by 0.2 per cent on 1997.
From 1989 to 1997 the pass rate increased by 1.5 per cent a year on average. This year a sixth of A levels were A grades, 7,447 more than last year, representing an 0.6 per cent increase.
But 96,899 A levels, one in eight, were failed compared with 96,435 last year. The persistently high failure rate has given rise to calls for better guidance and offering school pupils alternatives to A levels. However, many candidates will have passed other A levels well enough to get to university.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service said that potential students would be more choosy than ever because they will be paying tuition fees.
UCAS spokesman Ross Hayman said: "This year people will be more focused on finding the right course and institution. If people's results are not as high as expected and they do not get their first choice they will take special care in finding the right course."
Ron McLone, convener of the joint forum of exam boards, said: "A levels were clearly not for a proportion of the students (who sat them). We need to find the appropriate examination for them."
Dr McLone said that one of the reasons why so many people opted to sit A levels when they had little chance of passing was that 16-18 education was still dominated by the higher education sector.
John Brennan, director of further education development for the Association of Colleges, said: "Some schools go to certain lengths to ensure that their pupils are not that well informed about the alternatives to staying on to A level."
The Confederation of British Industry said that better advice might have led to pupils taking vocational qualifications rather than A levels.
Alan Smithers, at the Centre for Education and Employment Research, said that the A-level pass rate was levelling off as it approached a ceiling of around 90 per cent. He said people should continue to be allowed to sit A levels even if it was likely that they would fail.
The number of A-levels taken rose by 16,552 (2.1 per cent) from 777,710 in 1997 to 794,262 this year. Total entries were up by 2.7 per cent to 823,236 but drop-outs numbered 99,2 (7 per cent) compared to 57,692 (7 per cent) in 1997.
General studies saw the biggest increase in candidates. In total 10.1 per cent (80,220 people) sat the exam, an 0.7 per cent increase making it second in popularity only to English. Some 93,722 took English, a fall of 0.4 per cent on 1997.
Other growth subjects were business studies, up 0.4 per cent, computing, 0.3 per cent and film, media and television studies by 0.2 per cent. History fell by 0.4 per cent, French and economics 0.3 per cent. The proportions sitting maths, chemistry and physics stayed the same. The proportion sitting biology increased by 0.1 per cent.
Admissions guide, page 5