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Keeping up standards;Leading Article;Opinion

THE PRESENTATION problem facing the Scottish Qualifications Authority will evoke little sympathy from candidates this morning as they receive their results. Joy or disappointment will be patent. But the SQA is annually in a no-win situation. If it points to rising standards of performance, it is accused of complacency or conniving at the easing of exams to achieve a political end. If it highlights the number of candidates who came unstuck, it looks churlish.

The Highers are more than a century old and many subjects are sat by thousands of candidates. A significant year-on-year change in performance would be surprising, and two years ago the Scottish Council for Research in Education concluded that levels of difficulty had remained much the same over 10 years. That is not to say that schools and teachers should sit back on their heels. Universities frequently complain of students who lack a grasp of the fundamentals (particularly in maths and the sciences) or express themselves badly in English. The article on the opposite page lists solecisms by Sixth Year Studies candidates, only some of which could be put down to exam pressure.

Consistent standards are in part a reflection of teacher familiarity with syllabuses and likely questions. The in-house survey by the SQA will cover a period of change with the start of Higher Still. A few years ago the Revised Higher caused problems in some subjects, with a dip in results. The transition now beginning will have to protect candidates who happen to be "guinea-pigs" over the next year or two.

That will impose yet another burden on teachers.

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