More than half the bilingual pupils sitting Higher English each year between 1994 and 1996 failed compared with 21 per cent, 10 per cent and 29 per cent of monolinguals. The proportion of those with A or B grades was half that of those with English as their first language.
At Standard grade the contrast was not so stark but still significant. Only 2.5 per cent of bilingual pupils made the top grade compared with 14.5 per cent of others.
Surind Bhopal, the teacher who compiled the survey, found that language-based subjects such as history showed a similar pattern. In 1996, 53 per cent of monolingual pupils had a Credit award in Standard grade history compared with 32 per cent of bilinguals.
For two years, however, ethnic minority pupils outperformed others in Standard grade maths. Standard grade chemistry showed one group on top one year and the opposite pattern the next year.
Mr Bhopal says that there are difficulties, especially at Higher and Credit level where "complexities associated with syntax, grammar and vocabulary allied with a different cultural heritage and experience will contribute to lower levels of achievement".
While accepting that his sample was on a small scale, he argues that schools with a large mix of nationalities and languages have to be sensitive to the needs of bilingual pupils and should devise strategies for all aspects of the curriculum and all departments. Topics could include the language used in textbooks, common mistakes made in writing and greater attention to talking and writing.
Good year for Highers, page 3