PUPILS ARE taking fewer Advanced Highers, leading to concerns that teachers are too stretched to offer the qualification.
Only 17,825 Advanced Higher exams were sat this year, after last year's record high of 18,258 a drop of 2.4 per cent in a year when the overall number of candidates rose by nearly 6,000.
Bill McGregor, general secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said it was unlikely that interest had decreased in the qualification, which is designed to give able students experience of university-level work.
With Advanced Higher classes usually consisting of a small number of pupils and timetabled over several hours a week, he believes that demands on teachers' time are a greater factor. "In an urban area you can run some kind of consortium, but it's different in a rural one," he said. "If you're in Camp-belltown or Oban and there's no German teacher, then that's that."
Mr McGregor believes numbers may drop further next year, because limits on S1 and S2 English and maths class sizes which come into effect this year will place more pressure on teachers.
A spokesman for Universities Scotland, which represents higher education principals, said the drop in Advanced Higher exams was not enormous, but that a long-term decline "would not be a good thing". He suggested that pupils had become more aware that Advanced Highers were tricky, and were therefore reluctant to sit them. There was also a danger that young people were being trained to see exams as purely for getting into university.
"Advanced Highers will help your university career and are very valuable for that reason," he said. "Particularly for some of the more technical subjects that require maths, an Advanced Higher will set you up. If you don't have it, you will have to do a catch-up."
Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council and a member of the SQA board, said the drop in numbers of Advanced Higher exams was too small to be significant. She said the stability in exam results was the most important trend to emerge from this year's results. Pass rates for Standard grades remained similar to 2006 down 0.1 per cent to 97.6 per cent as was the case for Highers, where the pass rate was up 0.9 per cent to 71.7 per cent.
Intermediate and Access courses are rapidly gaining in popularity Access 3 entries are up by 54.8 per cent. The numbers taking Stan-dard grades, however, remain significantly higher than Interme-diate 1 and 2, at 404,638, despite dropping by 11,207.
There were encouraging trends in languages and sciences where the number of Higher exams was up by as much as 17 per cent in the case of German.
There was, however, a decline of 22 per cent in candidates sitting Gaelic, counting learners and native speakers.
One of the lowest pass rates was 39.4 per cent in Higher English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). Although 74.4 per cent of candidates at Scottish examination centres passed, the rate for those at centres outside Scotland mainly Chinese or Middle Eastern students hoping to go on to university in Scotland was 8.7 per cent.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Quali-fications Authority has apologised after a results website address given to candidates was found to be missing a letter 's'. This year was the first in which candidates could get results online or by text message a day before the delivery by post. The SQA said it was not possible to establish how many candidates were unable to access results.