Are exam results stuck on a plateau?
Other measures of progress are barely more impressive. The number of candidates with five or more Standard grades at Credit and General levels has risen by two points in the past three years, the proportion of fifth and sixth years succeeding in three or more modules has fallen in the past year, and the percentage of fourth-year pupils gaining at least two Highers in sixth year is the same as it was four years ago.
The Inspectorate put its usual gloss on the tables, warning against using the figures to make isolated judgments. Information on pupil progress, quality of learning and school ethos is required to complete the picture, the Scottish Office commentary states.
Users of the data are pointed to possible fluctuations in pupil abilities in different year groups "rather than to any underlying trend in school performance, particularly where relatively small numbers are concerned". The patterns over time matter more than the yearly, tabular snapshot, HMI stresses.
The major "underlying trend" and "patterns over time" continue to be the persistent gulf between the high performers and those struggling to make any appearance in the tables at all. Dunblane High once again scores the top marks with an impressive 67 per cent of pupils achieving the top two Standard grade levels and almost 100 per cent of the fourth year gaining Credit and General awards.
Dunblane has dislodged Anderson High in Shetland from the top of the league for three or more Higher passes, although Banchory Academy in Aberdeenshire is the overall leader if the number of pupils with five or more Higher passes is taken into account.
The high-achieving East Renfrewshire schools helped give the authority a pre-eminent place as the most successful of the 32 new education authorities both for Standard grade and Higher results. It is followed, on both counts, by East Dunbartonshire. One common factor is that respective staying-on rates of 80 per cent and 74 per cent are among the top three. The national average of 65 per cent has not changed in three years.
Glasgow's position at the bottom is as unenviable as ever. Only 16 per cent of pupils have achieved Standard grade Credit awards while 11 per cent gained three or more Higher passes, repeat figures from last year. The city is followed by Dundee, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire.
But efforts by some Glasgow schools appear to have paid off. St Mungo's Academy, which had to rely last year on much improved module results in fifth and sixth year, can show an increase from
4 per cent to 14 per cent in the top Standard grade results over the past four years and a steady rise in the numbers who also have Standard grade General passes. Ironically, John Bosco Secondary, despite being blighted by closure threats for some years, has achieved significant Standard grade Credit awards for the first time. The school's proportion of Credit and General passes has risen from 27 per cent to 44 per cent in the past three years.
Schools that have recorded the most improved performance at Credit level are Glen Urquhart High in Inverness-shire with a 24-point improvement and Westhill Academy in Aberdeenshire which is up 17 points. But, as the Scottish Office commentary states, small year-on-year changes in small schools (Glen Urquhart has 130 pupils) can have a distorting effect.