While news reports might suggest an inexorable rise in pass rates, and callers to radio phone-ins carp about easy exams, the picture is far more nuanced. Higher and Advanced Higher both posted record pass rates this year (up 0.8 per cent to 74.2 per cent, and 2 per cent to 77.8 per cent), but there were downward turns for some of the most popular subjects.
At Higher level, French passes fell by 3 per cent (to 82.4 per cent), while maths was down 2 per cent (to 69.7 per cent). Other fallers included: Gaelic learners (down 12 per cent to 71.2 per cent); philosophy (down 9 per cent to 65.3 per cent); and fitness and exercise (down 5.5 per cent to 79.5 per cent). Some subjects fell way below the average pass rate. Building construction was at 50 per cent, care at 43.4 per cent and visual arts was bottom of the pile at 27.8 per cent.
Some subjects are, however, flying higher and higher. There were big jumps for home economics: fashion and textiles technology (up 29 per cent to 77.3 per cent), home economics: health and food technology (up 15 per cent to 83.4 per cent), administration (up 9 per cent to 65 per cent), accounting (up 8 per cent to 73.2 per cent) and business management (up 7.5 per cent to 72.4 per cent).
Russian, meanwhile, once again had a full house of top marks - all 13 candidates were awarded As.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority, meanwhile, has rebutted newspaper reports that pass marks of below 50 per cent in some subjects indicated falling standards. In fact, a lower pass rate indicated a harder exam than in previous years. Adjustments were made to ensure that a certain grade this year was equivalent to the same grade in previous years.
Show of faith
Religious, moral and philosophical studies (RMPS) is the fastest-growing subject in Scotland. Experts argue that even non-religious pupils are turning to it as a way of understanding tensions in the modern world.
Since 2006, the number of Higher candidates has almost doubled, from 1,323 to 2,573. In the same time, Advanced Higher candidates have increased by about 70 per cent (to 202) and Intermediate 2 by about 60 per cent (to 949). RMPS is scaling the table of most-popular Higher subjects, rising from 25th to 19th (out of 71) since 2006, and catching up with subjects such as psychology and administration.
There has also been a big upward leap in the pass rate, which rose from 76.4 per cent to 87.4 per cent between 2008 and 2009.
Academics such as Martin Mills, senior lecturer in the anthropology of religion at Aberdeen University, believe that people are more interested in religion than in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was thought to be in decline. Whereas the struggle between communism and capitalism used to occupy minds, the end of the Cold War had resulted in a greater prominence for religion.
University students who would once have been attracted to international relations, he explained, were increasingly drawn to religious issues.
Four reasons for upsurge
Many more candidates are choosing English for speakers of other languages (ESOL). Higher entries jumped 34 per cent to 436, up from 287 in 2008 and more than double the 193 recorded when the qualification was first awarded in 2007. Intermediate 2 entries have also risen sharply since 2007's first cohort at that level, up 21 per cent to 475 from 392.
Initial difficulties appear to have been ironed out. In 2007, pass rates for both were lower than 50 per cent. The poorest results were posted by candidates based abroad, all of whom were Chinese candidates aspiring to attend Scottish universities. The Scottish Qualifications Authority admitted at the time that some candidates may not have been at the appropriate level.
Pass rates have since improved dramatically. The latest figures show 72.4 per cent for Intermediate 2, up from 44.6 per cent in 2007. Higher passes were at 77.8 per cent, against 39.4 per cent two years ago.
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Qualifications Authority gave four reasons for the improvement: more learning support materials available, many on the SQA website; more professional development for teachers, including strong links between schools and colleges; improvements in matching candidates to the right level of qualification; and Higher ESOL being now accepted as an equivalent to Higher English for general university entrance.
. in the making
One of the biggest surges in interest at Higher level was for history, which saw a 6 per cent rise in candidates, up to 8,596. That came while entries in other social subjects barely shifted, with geography at 7,225 and modern studies at 6,768.
Duncan Toms, principal teacher of history at Bearsden Academy, said the increase might be explained by pupils trying to make sense of global news issues. The debate about how much Scottish history pupils should cover also raised the subject's profile.
Mr Toms, former president of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History, said the high uptake reflected well on the quality of history teachers, a view given added credence by this year's rise in the pass rate by 2.5 per cent, to 78.6 per cent.
There was, however, an even more impressive performance from its sister subject, modern studies. Its pass rate rose 5.3 per cent to 78.2 per cent.
Minding the gap
Long perceived as one of the most daunting subjects in schools, physics is the fastest-growing science.
There were significant rises in the number of entries since 2008 at Intermediate 1 (7 per cent), Intermediate 2 (9 per cent), Higher (3 per cent) and Advanced Higher (10 per cent). At Advanced Higher, current trends suggest there will be more people taking physics than English next year - a surge in popularity described by the Scottish Government as "especially encouraging".
Although the number of physics candidates still lags behind biology and chemistry at all levels, the gap is closing and there is a good chance that physics will overtake biology as the second-most popular science at Higher in 2010.
Alison McLure, Scotland's national officer for the Institute of Physics, said the recession might have turned pupils' thoughts towards subjects that would increase job prospects. She also cited the high standard of physics teachers, who, in Scotland, are specialists.
That view was backed up when Scotland's Teacher of the Year was recently revealed as Iain Houston, who teaches physics at St Joseph's College in Dumfries. He believes the rise is down to many more people "pushing" physics through initiatives such as Engineering the Future and Young Engineers and Science Clubs Scotland.
Up and down
Gaelic uptake has dropped at almost every level, both for speakers' and learners' courses. Gaelic-speaking Higher numbers fell 26 per cent to 148, and the downward trend was defied only by an increase in the small number of Intermediate 2 entries.
Catherine Dunn, Western Isles Council's acting education director, said the small number of candidates meant Gaelic entries were more susceptible to fluctuation; early indications from Stornoway's Nicolson Institute were that there was actually an increase in Higher candidates for 2009-10.
Falling school rolls in the Western Isles were having an impact, but Mrs Dunn said that the proportion of pupils studying the language at secondary schools could increase in years to come because Gaelic-medium education was growing at primary level.
Spanish has done what it has been threatening for years and usurped German as the second-most popular foreign language in Scottish schools.
Its 1,364 Higher entries overtook German's tally of 1,261 - a drop of nearly 25 per cent in two years. There are now more pupils doing Spanish than German at every level from Access 2 to Advanced Higher, apart from Standard Grade (although Spanish bucked the trend for subjects at that level with an increase in candidates, while German saw a 16 per cent drop).
From this year, Spanish will be the only language on offer at Bellshill's Cardinal Newman High, excepting pupils who have already started studying French. The decision was made after a survey of pupils and parents, showing a seven-to-one preference for Spanish over French.
Principal teacher of promoting positive learning Robert Smith, who has a remit for international education and teaches Spanish, said children perceived Spanish as more relevant than French or German, partly because they were more likely to have visited Spain.
But pronunciation was also an issue: he believes west of Scotland boys' accents allow them to get their tongues round Spanish words more easily, whereas they feel self-conscious attempting a French accent. Some pupils, meanwhile, had their "fingers on the pulse" and saw that the emerging economies of South America would make it useful to have Spanish.
Mr Smith, who stressed that he enjoyed other languages and had "no axes to grind", also felt there was a "modernity and enthusiasm" to Spanish teaching in Scotland that might not exist in other languages.
Two of these courses had a 0 per cent pass rate - for the second year in a row. Media studies and Italian, between them, had 108 entries over the past two years (82 for media studies and 26 for Italian) but not a single award.
An SQA spokeswoman explained that Access 2 did not involve external exams, but three internally-assessed units instead. As Access 2 is designed for those with moderate support needs, some candidates take more than a year to complete all of the units, so would not finish until the following year; this would show up as a no award.
Given that there has been a 0 per cent pass rate for two years in a row, however, a second explanation is more likely: sometimes centres enter candidates for the full course, but they will only do one or two of the units. Again, this would be recorded as a no award.
"Hence, in both of these instances, the 0 per cent pass rate, although statistically correct at the time of logging, does not represent the true situation at school or college level," the spokeswoman said.
There was considerable improvement in the one other course that posted a 0 per cent pass rate in 2008. Last year there were 21 out of 21 "no awards" for Intermediate 2 care issues for society: childcare. This year 41 out of 68 candidates passed, or 60 per cent.