The proportion of A-levels awarded top grades has fallen for the second year amid a rise in students taking science and maths.
As the pass rate dipped, a breakdown by subject revealed a continued move towards science and maths A-levels, which are often seen as tougher, and more traditional subjects.
Biology, chemistry and physics accounted for 17.8 per cent of entries, up from 17 per cent last year and 15 per cent in 2009, according to figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).
One in eight (12 per cent) entries was in maths or further maths, up from 11.5 per cent last year and 9.8 per cent five years ago and there were almost 24,000 more entries for the sciences this year compared with 2009, JCQ said, and nearly 19,000 more for maths courses.
Chemistry entries alone were up 5.2 per cent this year, further maths was up 4.5 per cent and physics entries rose by 3.1 per cent, the statistics show.
Science and maths courses are in demand by universities and businesses, and it had previously been suggested that the focus on these A-levels could fuel a slight drop in results, as youngsters who might not have considered taking these subjects in the past, and might not be as strong in them, are opting for the courses to help their chances of securing a university place.
Verity O’Keefe, Employment Skills and Policy Adviser at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, said: “Industry is crying out for talented young people with the right skills to help fuel the growth we’re now seeing in manufacturing, so the fact more and more young are people studying maths and sciences is good news. Those that do will significantly boost their chances of a successful career in industry.
“The challenge now is to encourage more girls to study physics and maths to help close the gender gap and avoid them ruling themselves out of opportunities in engineering. This must be accompanied by a stronger focus on careers advice and work experience in schools to give all young people a better understanding of the valuable jobs within industries such as manufacturing.
“It’s predicted that there will be more than two million job opportunities between 2010 and 2020, across many thousands of engineering companies, many of whom will be demanding maths and science-based skills.”
Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, said students are becoming "more and more savvy about choices they need to make at A-level for the career they want".
"We are seeing gender choices are often influenced by the degree they want to do and job they want to do," he said. "The universities are being very transparent about what they expect; it's not just the grades, it's the type of subject they expect students to take, it's employers saying 'this is the degree we're looking at'."
David Youdan, executive director of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, said: "The growth in the numbers of students taking A-level mathematics and further mathematics is a real success story.
"More young people are better equipped to study a wide range of mathematics-rich subjects at university because they have taken further mathematics."
For the seventh consecutive year, the number of students choosing to sit A levels in physics has risen, from a low of 27,368 in 2006 to 35,569 this year meaning a government target of 35,000 students studying the subject by 2014 has been achieved a year early.
President of The Institute of Physics’ (IOP) Professor Sir Peter Knight believes its government-funded Stimulating Physics Network (SPN), a network originally established to reach the government target, can take some of the credit.
Professor Sir Peter Knight, President of IOP, said: “Our SPN is addressing the chronic problem of too few specialist physics teachers in the UK by offering free, bespoke, in-school training to non-specialist science teachers.
“Thanks to SPN, these teachers are gaining the confidence to offer inspiring physics lessons and ensuring students receive an exciting taste of physics before they are asked to choose the subjects they will continue to study at A level and beyond.”
But he also pointed out major concerns about the very low proportion of girls choosing to study physics.
He added: “The proportion of females sitting physics remains low with only one in five (20.6 per cent) of those choosing to sit physics being female. There is still a huge amount of work to be done to ensure girls are not denied their entitlement to a good physics education.
“Not least, we know that anachronistic gender stereotypes persist in many classrooms and these contribute to an outrageous unfairness that we continue to fight against.”
The Institution of Engineering and Technology's (IET) policy advisor Jayne Hall echoed Sir Peter's concern.
“Maths and physics are crucial gateway subjects and vital to the industry and economy as a whole. With recent results from the IET’s Skills & Demand survey showing that only 7 per cent of the engineering and technology workforce are women, action needs to be taken at an early stage by encouraging females into these subjects," she said.
“Students are aware of the importance of A-level maths to starting a career in engineering, but the perceived importance of physics is much lower.
“It is vital that we encourage more students, particularly females, to study these key enabling subjects. Currently, female students effectively rule themselves out of an engineering career at age 14 by not studying maths and physics. We must change this so that students can make informed subject choices.”
In total, 26.3 per cent of entries scored an A or A*, down from 26.6 per cent last year – a drop of 0.3 per cent. It is believed to be the second biggest fall in the history of A-levels, and comes the year after the A*-A pass rate fell for the first time in more than 20 years.
The number of entries awarded an A* – the highest grade – also dipped to 7.6 per cent, compared with 7.9 per cent last year, while the overall A*-E pass rate rose slightly by 0.1 per cent to 98.1 per cent.