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First fall in 21 years for A grades
Many students are still waiting for university places to be confirmed after the proportion of A-levels awarded at least an A grade fell for the first time in more than 20 years.
This summer's A-level results reveal that 26.6% of exams were awarded an A or A*, down from 27% in 2011 - a drop of 0.4%.
It is believed to be the biggest fall on record for A-levels.
The A* to A pass rate stalled at 27% last year, and the last time it fell was between 1990 and 1991.
Some 7.9% of exams have been awarded an A*, a drop from 8.2% last year.
But the overall A* to E pass rate has risen to 98% from 97.8%.
Exam chiefs insisted that the drop is down to more students, and a broader range of candidates, taking A-levels.
Andrew Hall, chief executive of AQA, said while the national cohort of 18-year-olds eligible to take A-levels was down from last year, the number of them sitting the exams had risen.
"It's very clear there's a different cohort profile which led us to believe we'd get what we got - which is a change in outcomes."
And Ziggy Liaquat, managing director of the Edexcel board, argued that the fall was "marginal", adding "the standard needed to reach an A grade has not changed".
The drop comes amid continuing attempts by the exams regulator Ofqual to tackle grade inflation.
It has told exam boards they will be asked to justify results that differ widely from previous years.
As teenagers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were opening their results, early UCAS figures showed that as of midnight, 357,915 applicants had had their places confirmed, down from 384,649 at the same point in 2011 - a fall of 6.95%.
Around 79,000 UK applicants were still awaiting decisions at this point.
There is likely to be speculation that the drop in confirmed university places could be partly linked to students just missing their predicted grades.
Under a new admissions system, there is now no limit on the numbers of students with two As and a B at A-level that universities can recruit.
But it means universities are likely to have less flexibility to admit students who just miss this standard, as there is still a strict cap on those who score less than AAB.
Cathy Gilbert, UCAS director of customer strategy, said it was too early to say if the new system was having an effect on teenagers getting their first choice university or on clearing.
"We haven't seen that starting to have an effect," she said.
Rachel Wenstone, vice-president of the National Union of Students (NUS), said Universities Minister David Willetts had provided "no evidence" that higher education reforms will give students more choice.
Ms Wenstone said: "Mr Willetts has provided absolutely no evidence to suggest that his reforms will create more choice for students. In fact, overall, fewer applicants than last year have had their places confirmed and, as a result of the minister's tinkering with student number controls, many now face an anxious wait."
Mr Willetts insisted he was not worried by the 7% drop in the number of students that have been accepted on to degree courses, and that many people will gain places through clearing.
The minister said application figures would be analysed by the Government and by UCAS, but it was too early to say if the admissions changes had affected the number of students getting places at the university of their choice.
"I think that our reforms are going to put more power in the hands of students and of course for those who got AAB or better, now those controls have gone, they can go to the university of their choice, of course subject to the university's own capacity; beyond that it is basically the usual system that we are familiar with, clearing, there to help people," he added.
Students attending English universities from this autumn will pay tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year.
Today's A-level results also showed:
:: Boys overtook girls at A* grade for the first time, with 8% of boys' entries attaining the top mark, compared with 7.9% of girls'.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: "It's nice to see that boys and girls are almost neck-and-neck now. We certainly don't want the gaps in achievement."
:: Entries for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) are up 3.1% on last year and 29.2% on 2007;
:: PE is becoming less popular in schools. The number of entries for the subject has dropped 12.7% since 2011, making it the third-fastest falling course this year. The result comes in the week that the Government has faced intense criticism over its school sports policies.
:: Take-up of foreign languages has slumped again, sparking fears for the subject's future. French is down 5.2% from last year and 13.6% since 2007, while German has seen a 7.6% drop, 24.3% since 2007. Spanish entries have fallen 3.4% from last year but increased overall by 5.8% since 2007.
Mr Hall said the drop was "a real worry" and suggested modern foreign languages are in crisis.
Late on Thursday afternoon concerns were raised online that students were facing problems using the UCAS system for clearing and checking university places.
The admissions service issued a statement saying that the system, known as Track, "is fully functioning and has been all day".
"We needed to refresh parts of our higher education institution technical support this afternoon and the refreshed system is running normally," it said.
"This meant that a very small number of decisions took slightly longer to show on the screens than usual but everything is working well and clearing opened as planned."