Worse results, more students, on A-level day

A-level results Image copyright PA
Image caption The good news and bad news will have arrived with A-level results

The long wait for A-level results is over.

Teenagers and their families will have found out the good news and the disappointments.

That is really the story of the day - the hundreds of thousands of individual triumphs and disasters that make up this collective academic rite of passage.

An analysis of Twitter today showed that "Good luck" was one of the most-used phrases.

And parents would have stepped away for a few moments to look at their phones to check text messages from their children that would put years of ambition into a few words.

It might be expressed through cliches of leaping teenagers and tearful conversations into mobile phones - but each set of results is a turning point in young lives.

Families won't be that bothered about the blizzard of national exam statistics, they will be worried about their own results, with all that effort and anxiousness, all those expectations, coming down to a few letters showing the exam grades.

School is officially finished and now there are big decisions.

For an increasing number, the destination is going to be university.

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Image caption A-level rituals: They're twins and they're going to university in Bath...

The figures for university places published on results day are still incomplete - but they show a 3% increase on the same time this year, with 424,000 already allocated.

This includes a rising number of EU students, who would have applied before the referendum, and it remains to be seen whether the numbers hold up for next year.

But despite tuition fees being pushed up even higher, to £9,250 from next year, the numbers going to university increase relentlessly.

And the clearing process, which has got under way today, will find places for tens of thousands more students, with universities competing to fill any empty spaces.

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Image caption Every set of results is a turning point for a young life

It will re-ignite the question whether university is worth the expense.

A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that doubling the number of students had not meant a reduction in higher graduate earnings.

Instead the labour market has changed, with more graduate jobs and diminishing opportunities for less well-qualified workers.

In the United States, having a degree has become a clear dividing line, with graduates much more likely to be in secure, better-paid jobs, while non-graduates are increasingly facing insecure and low-paid jobs.

But the IFS report also has a strong note of caution that at some point a rising number of students will tip over into a process of diminishing returns.

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Image caption The University of Sheffield is offering places through clearing

The increase in university numbers might seem to run counter to the other headline - that the proportion of top A-level grades has fallen for the fifth successive year.

But apart from the most marginal of changes, the exam results this year are remarkably similar to those from last year.

The fall in A* and A grades is only by 0.1% and the overall pass rate is identical.

Such stability is not accidental. It's the effect of a system designed to make each year comparable with the last.

We report the rise and fall of results as though measuring a natural phenomenon, like taking the changing temperature outside the window.

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Image caption It's an emotional day for parents as well as students

But an exam-grading system sets its own boundaries and outcomes - and this year's results are almost identical with those from last year. There is no grade inflation and no sudden falls.

Head teachers have long complained that below this smooth surface there are all kinds of individual problems - but the big picture remains one of year-to-year consistency.

The results day also casts a light on what subjects are being studied.

Maths, English and biology are the most popular. But there was a further decline in modern languages, with the number taking French A-level, the most popular language, falling below 10,000 for the first time.

Head teachers have suggested that schools under financial pressure might not be able to afford to run subjects with small numbers of students.

The Institute of Physics was concerned that the numbers studying physics had fallen this year.

But for now, with all the results announced and envelopes opened, the next phase of the story will be personal rather than political, with celebrations and commiserations, as the long summer weeks after A-levels come to a symbolic end.

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