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Higher passes up sixth year in a row

Success attributed to education strategies rather than `dumbed down' exams

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Success attributed to education strategies rather than `dumbed down' exams

This year's Scottish Qualifications Authority results have been hailed as evidence that strategies such as the individualisation of learning and raising of expectations are reaping rewards.

Higher pass rates rose marginally for the sixth year in a row, prompting statements from councils about "record-breaking results".

The results trend also prompted concerns in some quarters that exams were being "dumbed down", with Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith insisting that future reform of the exam system should ensure "academic rigour".

Maureen McKenna, Glasgow's executive director of education, told TESS she was "thrilled" by progress, with improvements recorded in nine out of 11 measures and 37 per cent of pupils now gaining at least one Higher by the end of S5, up from 28 per cent in 2007.

She believes a big factor has been secondary attendance - 82.4 per cent in 1999 but now 90.8 per cent.

There was also now an ethos across the city that expectations should be set high for all pupils. The old attitude to lower attainment of "What do you expect? It's Glasgow", as she put it, is starting to fade.

Improved attendance is a factor in Edinburgh too, according to Karen Prophet, senior education manager for quality and curriculum.

She also pointed to the city's recent emphasis on raising expectations for the lowest-achieving 20 per cent, and to greater efforts being made to ensure that S3-4 pupils are motivated, by tailoring learning.

Tracking and monitoring had become "much more rigorous", she said, while ICT had contributed through "collaborative networks" of teachers and a gradual, two-year rollout of Glow involving a staff "Glow champion" in every school.

Staff training over the past two years had focused on areas such as cooperative learning, higher-order thinking and Bloom's taxonomy.

Craig Munro, head of education (south) at Fife Council flagged up the "rigorous analysis of results" that his authority has become known for, as well as "very specific performance-management reports" that were "highly transparent, meaningful and readable". The quality of interventions was a factor, as well as mentoring and coaching and improved pedagogy.

West Dunbartonshire's Terry Lanagan, like other education directors, was keen to shift praise on to teachers and wary of snap judgements.

But he highlighted the authority's recent focus on S5-6, with additional masterclasses and study support, and improved monitoring, tracking and target-setting for individual students.

All five secondary heads in West Dunbartonshire have agreed to part-fund - from their own school budgets - a continuation in 2012-13 of teaching roles which "focused on whole-school approaches as well as individualised support and challenge".

The national picture around newer SQA options was less clear. Baccalaureate uptake rose from 174 to 182, with another 50 pupils choosing to pursue the baccalaureate's inter-disciplinary project alone. "The low numbers, we suspect, continue to reflect the inequality across Scotland's schools in terms of staffing and resources," said Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland.

Revised Highers for the main sciences saw low uptakes - biology had 33 candidates, compared with 9,548 for the traditional course - but Stuart Farmer, chair of council for the Association for Science Education and head of physics at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen, expects numbers to grow.

"There will be more candidates in 2013 as I know a number of large schools are opting in, including around 100 in revised Higher physics from my school," he said.

He attributed low uptake of the revised Highers - designed to reflect advances in science - to schools waiting to know exactly what was in the new National 45 courses, and "the unfortunate period of `will it run, won't it run?' which occurred in the winter and spring of 2011".



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Some subjects saw a big spike in uptake at Higher, in a year when there were 2,720 more Higher candidates overall.

PE and music had two of the biggest increases, both up by about 10 per cent to 6,432 and 5,090 respectively. The growth of religious, moral and philosophical studies continues, and a pass rate of 73.7 per cent - fractionally higher than maths - appears to dispel any notion that it is an "easy" option.

History and modern studies, too, had several hundred more candidates. For the first time in several years there was a rise in German candidates, although it still trails Spanish.

Chinese languages were up - to 74 candidates from 38 in 2011 - but Urdu numbers dropped from 92 to 66.

Despite the greater number of candidates overall, IT-based subjects - computing and information systems - experienced decreases.

Few subjects with a substantial number of candidates saw pass rates change by two percentage points or more. Exceptions included accounting (+4.5), administration (+3.8), business management (+11.3), chemistry (+2.3), German (-7), graphic communication (+4.4), modern studies (+5.1), photography (+2.5), PE (-2), product design (-4.9) and psychology (+4.7).

Higher English and maths pass rates rose by 1.7 and 0.1 per cent, bringing both to just over 73 per cent.

Henry Hepburn.

Photo: Marr College students run past education secretary (and former pupil) Michael Russell. Credit: Alistair G Firth

Original headline: Pass rates rise for the sixth year in a row

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