The Garrick report on higher education last week said that the sixth year did not offer value for money and needed to ensure "a purposeful and rewarding experience". The Scottish Office bulletin on leavers' qualifications points out that 42.2 per cent of pupils stayed on in state schools in 1995-96 compared with 21 per cent 10 years ago.
The sixth year is not just for high-fliers: among 27,586 sixth-year leavers in 1995-96, 58 per cent had passed fewer than three Highers in S5. Of these, 5,123 managed to achieve three Highers on leaving, as a result of sitting extra subjects or resitting subjects failed the previous year.
The Certificate of Sixth Year Studies, which is not recognised for university entrance and is due to be replaced by Advanced Higher in 2000, has grown in popularity. The percentage of leavers with at least one SYS certificate rose from 7.3 in 1985-86 to 12.6 a decade later. Among sixth-year leavers, almost 29 per cent of both boys and girls had attempted a CSYS in 1995-96.
Only 30 per cent of pupils now leave school at the first opportunity compared with more than 45 per cent 10 years ago. But more than a third of boys go early compared with a quarter of girls.
Qualifications have improved, especially at Standard grade. The proportion of leavers with five or more awards at bands 1-3 rose from 40.5 per cent in 1985-86 to 54.5 per cent. Confirmation of progress towards national training targets is evident from the rise to 29.6 per cent of leavers holding three or more Highers. One in three girls but only one in four boys reaches that standard.
Levels of performance vary greatly. One in four East Dunbartonshire leavers has five or more Highers, whereas in West Dunbartonshire there are only 9 per cent. Thirty-seven per cent of East and West Lothian pupils leave at age 16 but only 15 per cent of those in the Western Isles and 17.6 per cent in East Renfrewshire.
Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, commented: "There is still a great deal of variance across the country, which proves that there is scope for further improvement. Raising standards is my top priority. In future each school will have demanding and achievable targets based on national standards which are clear to all."
Mr Wilson said the recently announced action group on target setting would start work at the earliest opportunity.
Scottish School Leavers and their Qualifications, 1985-86 to 1995-96 is available from the Stationery Office at Pounds 2.