The number of leavers going on to full-time further or higher education has topped the 50 per cent mark for the first time ever.
Annual statistics on leaver destinations show the proportion from local authority schools and the grant-aided Jordanhill School taking up college or university places has increased from 40 per cent of the 55,800 leavers in 1992-93 to 51 per cent of the 55,569 leavers in 1999-2000.
The breakdown is 32 per cent in full-time HE and 19 per cent in full-time FE, respective increases of 7 per cent and 4 per cent over the past eight years. Numbers from independent schools are 83 per cent in HE and 6 per cent in FE.
While Wendy Alexander, Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, welcomed "the excellent news", Conservatives and the Association of University Teachers warned that universities and colleges could be tempted to pack students in to attract funding rather than seek to attract the brightest and the best.
Ms Alexander said: "These figures are the first sign that we are turning around past prejudices whereby less than one in 10 of Scottish university entrants came from a semi or unskilled household."
But she cautioned against complacency: "The pattern of destinations can vary widely from local authority to local authority and school to school."
East Renfrewshire saw the greatest proportion of leavers enter HE last session at 50 per cent, followed by East Dunbartonshire with 47 per cent and South Ayrshire and Aberdeenshire, each with 42 per cent. The lowest figures for HE destinations were recorded in Glasgow (17 per cent) and Midlothian (24 per cent).
The statistical bulletin issues a customary reminder that leaver destinations are not necessarily a comment on the quality of local education. "Location, proximity of higher and further education institutions and the local economic situation are all factors which may be influential," the bulletin states.
Job prospects, for example, could account for Midlothian having more leavers moving into employment, as well as being second bottom of the league for HE entry - 44 per cent against a Scottish average of 26 per cent. Shetland, Edinburgh and East Lothian have the next highest figures. Fewest leavers opt for employment in South Ayrshire (15 per cent) and North Ayrshire (16 per cent).
The Executive is sticking with its determination to encourage more and more pupils into HE and FE - an extra 2,800 and 40,000 respectively over three years. An allocation of pound;18 million to widen access and the introduction of ursaries for hard-up students next year are designed to promote that policy. Ministers also realise that the key is to persuade pupils to stay on into fifth year. Last year that number varied from 80 per cent in Perth and Kinross to 53 per cent in Glasgow.
The Government has introduced a maintenance allowance aimed at encouraging young people from low-income households to stay on, an initiative being piloted in East Ayrshire but which is planned to be extended to other parts of the country. Some 900 youngsters received the means-tested allowance in the first year and they are said to have demonstrated positive attitudes to work.
The Executive is also carrying out research on the factors that persuade young people to stay on at school, and will look at attitudes to school and college and attendance and achievement rates.
* Gourock High, with 95 leavers, sent 56 per cent of them into full-time higher education last session, one of the best showings in the country, compared with only 34 per cent in 1997-98.
Chris Robertson, the head, says the school has focused on raising attainment in the upper school and increasing support to senior school pupils. She noted that 96 per cent of pupils achieved five or more Standard grades 1-4 this year - "pretty good, don't you think?" Ms Robertson added: "The increase in our success has been almost wholly due to the extremely comprehensive work done by the guidance team in helping students prepare personal statements for UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) and the good teaching of all staff."
Pupils have been encouraged to take more Highers and their progress through fifth and sixth year is more carefully tracked. Attendance at these stages has improved by more than 10 per cent in two years. The school has also briefed parents on expectations in HE and student finance.
ABERDEEN SCHOOL IS TOPS
The publicly funded school with the greatest number of pupils entering full-time higher education last session was Cults Academy in Aberdeen, with 73 per cent against an average for the rest of the city of 36 per cent. This represented a 15 per cent increase over three years.
Cults is one of 11 secondary schools with 60 per cent or more of their leavers in HE, double the Scottish average.
Moffat Academy showed the greatest increase, up from 27 per cent to 56 per cent. Its showing is volatile, however, because of the varying quality of relatively small year groups (the school had just 34 leavers last session).
Leader, page 8