THE one word that rarely figured in this week's comments on the exam results was "standards". The fact that the numbers passing Higher English fell from 64.7 per cent to 59.2 per cent is indeed significant, and the report from the assessment panel on English will hopefully cut through the complexities and tell us why. But we can only imagine the coverage of the results if the figure had been in the opposite direction and there had been a five-point rise in passes: we would almost certainly have been treated to complaints about the exam becoming too easy and consequently about standards being eroded.
The truth is that it is almost impossible at this stage to distinguish between fact and fiction in Higher English, not least because the subject has been through a bewildering series of changes about which there is barely a consensus. Inevitably, the pass mark will have to keep being adjusted to maintain consistency and fairness in the exam which in turn will produce volatility in the pass rate. But even setting the pass mark is not an exact science, as the SQA admits (page five).
It is none the less clear that a series of factors has undoubtedly come together to create major challenges. One is the changes in what is externally examinable. Another is the fact that it is the benchmark subject of the gold standard which undoubtedly makes it a magnet for those whose ambitions outstrip their abilities, at least in S5. Bypassing Intermediate 2 for Higher may be the fault of unrealistic parents, target-driven teachers or indeed over-anxious pupils. Despite all the changes of the last decade, we still have the "two-term dash" to Higher - which was identified as a problem back in 1990 when the Howie committee was set up.
There may well be a need to market Intermediate 2 as a more realistic option for many pupils: the fact that a quarter of Higher English entries achieved no more than 30 per cent suggests that. But this means the Intermediate levels should be seen as fully-fledged grades in their own right, not as a fall-back compensation for failure at Higher.