Scottish secondary schools are continuing to make steady, if unspectacular, progress in the key categories of exam performance.
The proportion of fourth-year pupils gaining five or more Standard grades 1-2 has increased from 29 per cent last year to 30 per cent, while the number with five or more Standard grade 1-4 passes has gone from 73 per cent to 74 per cent.
The average for the top two Standard grades hides huge variations, as always, with East Renfrewshire hitting the 50 per cent mark, comfortably ahead of the next best performer which is Orkney at 43 per cent. By contrast, Glasgow schools give the city the lowest proportion of 18 per cent of pupils gaining five or more Standard grades 1-2.
Nationally, the number failing to achieve five-plus Standard grades at any level remains at 10 per cent ranging from 2 per cent in Shetland to 22 per cent in Dundee.
The performance at Higher is stuck stubbornly for the third year running with 20 per cent getting three or more passes.
But another 16 per cent of the fourth year achieve at least two Highers by the time they reach sixth year.
The range in fifth-year Higher passes across the country is from 34 per cent in East Renfrewshire to 11 per cent in Glasgow. Some 62 per cent of fourth-year pupils emerge from fifth year with no Highers at all the target group for the new Higher Still levels although 40 per cent of the fifth and sixth years succeed in gaining at least three National Certificate modules.
The latest Scottish Office tables now provide six years of consistent data which allow schools and the public to do what the HMI audit unit, which compiles the figures, is constantly urging look at trends over time rather than focus on snapshots over one year.
There are signs of progress, at least at Standard grade. The number of fourth-year pupils with five or more Standard grades 1-2 has increased from 23 per cent in 1993 to 30 per cent; five-plus Standard grades 1-4 stood at 67 per cent and is now 74 per cent.
But those with three or more Higher passes have hardly moved from 19 per cent six years ago to 20 per cent.
What has also barely shifted are the schools at the top and bottom of the league.
The leading performers among local authority schools are still those in the leafy suburbs, with two East Renfrewshire schools Mearns Castle High and Williamwood High the top scorers in Standard grade Credit level results with 66 per cent and 65 per cent respectively.
This places them alongside the state-funded Jordanhill School in Glasgow on 65 per cent.
The council school with the greatest number of three-plus Higher passes is Cults Academy in Aberdeen, at 50 per cent. Bearsden Academy meanwhile tops the league for those with five or more Highers, standing at 26 per cent against the national average of 6 per cent.
By contrast the schools which struggle to make it into even single figures for exam passes remain those in the urban centres of Scotland. Nine of the poorest showings in Standard grades 1-2 are in Glasgow, while three Aberdeen schools are among the ones with the fewest Higher passes.
Most schools, however, do not experience a steady improvement or decline. This is in line with the findings of the recently published Improving School Effectiveness Project (ISEP) which concluded that schools were not uniformly effective or ineffective. Factors such as the performance of departments in adding value to pupil results, pupil experiences in different classes and changes in the ability of year groups all point to a complex picture.
Fluctuating fortunes are shown in the case of Anderson High in Shetland which, while turning in creditable performances, is not among the leading schools this year. Over the past three years, its results for three or more Higher passes have gone from 45 per cent to 55 per cent to 38 per cent, while Standard grade 1-2 figures show three-year changes of 43 per cent, 37 per cent and 42 per cent. These are examples, schools say, of the impact of varying pupil abilities from year to year.
The tables are accompanied by the usual health warnings, including the likelihood of fluctuations in pupil abilities as an explanation of results rather than any underlying trend in performance, particularly where small numbers are concerned.
The inspectorate also suggests that often there are strong reasons to avoid drawing conclusions; instead, it would be better to let the statistics raise questions.
The Scotland Schools Examination Tables 19968 are printed in full in this week's printed issue of the TES Scotland.
Alternatively you can access the Scottish Office Education amp; Industry Department's website.