13/08/2015 17:01 BST | Updated 13/08/2016 06:12 BST

Record Numbers Going To University As A-Level Results Released

A record number of students have been accepted to university this year despite a narrow drop in the number of top A-level grades, official figures show.

Hundreds of thousands of students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland collected their much-anticipated exam results today.

The number of boys and girls awarded the coveted A* and A grades dipped to 25.9%, down 0.1% on last year, continuing a four-year trend, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) said.

But the overall pass rate has risen, returning to where it was in 2013 at 98.1% after falling last year for the first time in three decades.

University admissions service Ucas said 409,410 people have already been accepted on to higher education courses in the UK, up 3% - around an extra 13,000 students - compared to the same point last year.

Official figures also suggest that students have tried to increase their chances of gaining entry to top universities by taking more traditional subjects such as maths, sciences, modern languages and English literature, often favoured by top institutions.

The number of exams taken in these "facilitating" subjects rose by 0.8% compared with last year, accounting for 51.2% of all entries.

The small increase comes mainly from a rise in people taking geography (up 4,188), history (up 3,717) and English literature (up 3,393).

Although this has been welcomed by the Government as "clear proof" that its introduction of the English Baccalaureate performance measure at GCSE has encouraged more pupils to continue studying core academic subjects, some teachers argue that it a reflection of cuts.

Cherry Ridgway, curriculum and assessment specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said the increase in students taking facilitating subjects is down to a desire to get into top universities and a dwindling subject choice for students because of funding pressure.

She added that students are considering the subjects they need to get into university and that schools are getting better at advising them.

Ms Ridgway continued: "But there is also this element of some subjects not being able to be offered by schools due to funding pressure post-16.

"Particular subjects that stand out this year are significant drops in music and German, which show a bit of a worrying trend and one we might expect to get worse going forward given the increase of funding pressures on schools."

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers backed the comments, adding that A-level results were unlikely to remain stable in the future in the wake of cuts and planned reforms of post-16 education.

Responding to this, a spokesman for the Department for Education said: "We have protected the schools budget and ended the unfair difference between post-16 schools and colleges by funding them per student - meaning every full-time student can study a full timetable of courses.

"Today's results show a year-on-year increase in overall entries to A-level modern languages and we expect that to continue as a result of the longer-term trend in rising GCSE entries for those subjects.

"We are modernising design & technology with a new curriculum and reforming GCSEs and A-levels so students will take a high-quality course that will help them secure careers in engineering and design."

The EBacc is a performance measure that recognises students who achieve at least a C at GCSE in English, maths, two sciences, history or geography and a language.

Mathematics remains the most popular subject, accounting for 10.9% of all entries, followed by English (10.5%) and biology (7.4%), the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) said.

The number of A-level entries in science and maths (STEM) subjects have increased by more than 38,000 since 2010, up 17.3%, and since then the Government's plan for education has included a focus on encouraging more young people, especially women, to study these subjects.

Girls have again outperformed boys by 1% overall but boys continued to earn more A* grades for the fourth year running, with 8.7% achieving a top mark compared with 7.8% of girls.

The number of exams taken has also risen by 2% compared with last year, up to 850,749 despite a 1.1% fall in 18-year-olds sitting the tests.