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Higher challenge;Leading Article;Opinion

THE ABLEST pupils have traditionally taken five Highers at a sitting. The annual school-by-school exam statistics have "five or more Highers" as a separate table. Yet in the quest for good grades as well as for "raw" passes, some schools have entered even their best candidates for only four subjects, and used the sixth year to add one or two more Higher subjects, as well as offering Certificate of Sixth Year Studies. Research by the Inspectorate using last year's Highers results (page one) suggests that such caution may be misplaced.

The TES Scotland has already recorded the phenomenon that the more Highers taken by a candidate with good Standard grade passes the better he or she is likely to do. Phil Austin, a teacher at Banchory Academy, noticed the difference in his own school and built a study round that, winning himself the annual award for a teacher researcher.

The most revealing aspect of the Inspectorate's report concerns pupils about whom the greatest caution might be expressed if they took five Highers, that is, the group immediately behind the most able. The statistics show that for them, as for those at the top of the class, challenge beings its rewards.

National statistics are only a summation of individual experiences, and the Inspectorate warns about turning its findings into an imposition on all future candidates. Individual circumstances, including drive and motivation, play their part. So must peer expectation, a factor in the academic success of independent schools, which were excluded from the analysis.

But if there is underachievement among able senior pupils, as notoriously there is among those in S1 and S2, it should be urgently looked at. Of course exam portfolios are not the be all and end all, but they are important in a competitive higher education entry market, and no one is likely to prove that many underchallenged fifth-year pupils are compensating through community service or personal enterprise.

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