TEACHERS who encourage their pupils to take a limited number of Highers may be doing them a disservice, according to an analysis undertaken by the HMI audit unit.
Its report, Success at Higher Grade, shows remarkable consistency in the performance of the best Standard grade pupils in 1997 who went on to take five Highers. On average, they achieved more awards and they were of better quality than pupils who sat only four.
The number-crunchers looked at the pupils in different ways, dividing them into three groups based on those with the best Credit and General Standard grade results, looking at the quality of the Higher passes, and sifting the number who gained the top A and B Higher awards. The message was the same: pupils taking five Highers do better on average, however they are measured.
But the inspectorate is at pains to stress that it is not insisting all pupils should sit five Highers.
Frank Crawford, head of the unit, has written to directors of education saying that course choice in the fifth year should be based on the circumstances of individual pupils, their career and academic objectives and their Standard grade performance.
Mr Crawford's letter added, however, that the findings demonstrated it would be "inappropriate to include in course-choice advice a blanket statement that concentrating on a smaller number of Higher grades is likely to improve prospects of overall success."
The research follows ground-breaking work on Higher grade performance by Philip Austin of Banchory Academy, revealed in the TESS earlier this year, which won him a national award for the best research by a teacher.
The inspectorate was also anxious to counter criticism that the five-plus Higher target for schools is unachievable in many cases. Only 6.2 per cent of pupils emerge with five or more Highers and this is supposed to rise to 7.7 per cent by 2001.
Colin MacLean, the depute senior chief inspector of schools, says the results of the HMI study show that "concern over a five-plus Higher target is not well-founded."
He added: "What the findings show is that there is no evidence that pupils do better if they take only four Highers, and there is no evidence of disadvantage if they attempt five." But it was a statistical exercise which simply raised questions that schools should consider and investigate.
Mr MacLean said reasons for these differences in Higher performance were purely speculative without further research. It may be that pupils taking five Highers are more highly motivated, or that schools with "a culture of achievement" encourage pupils to "aim higher".
Leader, page 14