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Thursday, August 6, 1998 Published at 23:14 GMT 00:14 UK


Education: Correspondents

Higher importance



The Higher results are a fixture in Scottish life. They come round every year, as they have for more than a century. Why should we care?

The fact is that the Highers are more important to more young people than ever before. Ten years ago only 11% of young people passed five or more Highers - three is generally accepted as the minimum standard for university entrance. In 1997 it was 17%.

And more of them are going on to university. Scotland has seen a huge expansion of higher education. In 1982 fewer than 81,000 people were attending Scotland's universities and other higher education institutions. Today that number has almost doubled.

Look at it another way: about half of all the young Scots leaving school this year will go to higher education. The latest official figure puts this "participation rate" at 46%. When female school leavers are considered alone it is even higher, with more than half going to degree-standard education.

At least part of this is because young people are making better use of their time at school. Over the last 15 years or so, poor job prospects encouraged many to postpone leaving school at the end of fifth year and stay on for a sixth.

While this may have begun as a "slacker's charter" it has developed into a key element of the Scottish education system. Instead of sitting five or more Highers in a single burst, increasing numbers of pupils are spreading six or more Highers over two years - or using sixth year to re-sit and improve the Higher grades they achieved in fifth.

The government's reforms of the Higher exams - known as Higher Still - are in part designed as a response to this trend. They will combine the current academic slant of Highers with new vocational elements.

And because the new courses will be modular there should be more scope for pupils to take their studies at a pace which suits them.

Teaching unions are still questioning government assurances that the new system will be will be adequately resourced, while some voices from the staffroom claim standards may slip.

Falling Standards?

More and more young Scots are passing their Highers - and getting better grades at the same time. Are standards slipping - or are Scotland's schoolchildren really getting smarter?

Pass rates for A Levels in England have also risen, but while a debate has raged there about whether standards have fallen, that has not been reflected to the same extent in Scotland.

At least part of the reason is the rate of change. While A Level pass rates have risen sharply over a relatively short period, in Scotland the increase has been more gradual.

Partly in response to the English debate - and also probably to forestall a similar one in Scotland - the Scottish Office Education Department commissioned an independent study of Higher standards.

The Scottish Council for Research in Education looked at three key Higher exams, English, Maths and Biology, between 1987 and 1994. The final report - in October 1996 - concluded that standards had been maintained, and in some cases candidates were showing increased performance levels.

So why the rise in pass rates? The good news for parents - and bad news for newspaper columnists - appears to be that young Scots are getting better at passing their exams.

Among the probable factors are better learning methods and greater emphasis on exam techniques.

Others think pupils are simply working harder, knowing that good Higher grades are more important than ever before in an increasingly competitive market for good jobs and university places.

It doesn't add up - or spell

That has not stopped persistent criticism - particularly from universities and employers - that the current generation of school leavers lacks the basic literacy and numeracy skills of their predecessors.

It is tempting to write this off as just the grumblings of the older generation. After all, most people believe the education system started to go downhill shortly after they left it.

But there may be a kernel of truth, at least in the claims that our undergraduates cannot spell or count as well as they used to.

As participation in higher education has increased, it has also broadened, bringing in more people from social strata where university entrance has hitherto been rare. Where university was once the privilege of an elite, in Scotland it is now very nearly the right of a majority of school leavers. So the odd spelling, punctuation or counting mistake may be inevitable.

Many would agree that a misplaced apostrophe is not the end of the world. Then again, in nuclear physics a stray decimal point just might be.





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