The overall number of Higher passes has reached record-breaking levels - but the drop in students entering and passing Stem subjects is a significant cause for concern, a senior academic has warned.
Figures published by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) on Tuesday reveal there were 199,850 Higher entries, 8,000 more than last year. Students across Scotland achieved a record 156,000 passes, up 5.5 per cent from 147,899 in 2014.
The Scottish government highlighted the "outstanding improvement" in the number of pupils passing Higher English, up 17.7 per cent to 27,902 from 23,702, while there was also a 15.2 per cent rise in modern foreign language passes.
But TESS analysis of the results has uncovered a marked decline in entries and passes in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.
The number of pupils getting at least a C in Higher maths dropped by 3.7 per cent from 15,757 last year to 15,169.
`The world is moving on'
The decline was even steeper in the sciences, with a 4 per cent overall drop in passes. The biggest decrease was in chemistry where the number of passes fell by 7.3 per cent from 8,744 to 8,104. There was also a 9.7 per cent fall in the number of pupils passing the Higher in computing, down from 3,149 to 2,843.
The decrease in entries and passes in Stem subjects is worrying, according to Alan Roach, a senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow who studies trends in Stem education.
"It is important that as many young people get as far as possible in the Stem subjects," Professor Roach said. "The world is moving on in a dramatic way and some of the technology that is appearing will be good for us but some will need careful managing.
"Good solid public understanding of science is crucial. We also want companies that are at the cutting edge, but that is not easy to do unless you have a big pool of people skilled in these areas to draw on."
The concerns were echoed by Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservatives' spokesperson on young people. "The Stem subjects are important, especially in an age where thousands of jobs in the UK are going to be in this area," she said. "That is something the government has to take seriously."
The improved results for Higher English could be due to a greater emphasis on teaching literacy across the curriculum, Gill Stewart, SQA director of qualifications development, told TESS. "What I can say for certain is that we have maintained the standard," she said. "If you got the grade, you deserved it."
The data also reveals a shift in the stage at which pupils are sitting National 5. Last year, 88 per cent of entries were in S4, but this year the figure dropped to 56 per cent. There was also a leap in the number of S5 pupils sitting the qualification, from about 7 per cent in 2014 to 31 per cent this year.
Meanwhile, the transition to National qualifications, which were available to pupils for the second time this year, is clearly well on the way, with the number of entries for Intermediate exams plummeting in preparation for the qualification disappearing next year. The number of entries at Intermediate 2 fell to 10,500, down from 97,000 last year.
At Higher level, entries were evenly split between the old and new Highers - a total of 107,295 students sat the new version of the qualification, while 92,555 pupils sat the existing Highers. Overall pass rates stood at 79.2 per cent and 76.7 per cent respectively.
Education secretary Angela Constance welcomed "another strong performance by Scotland's young people".
But teaching unions and opposition politicians were at pains to point out that students had done well under challenging circumstances. Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur said the results were achieved "despite the government's approach to curriculum reform, not because of it".
Schools were performing well even though the new curriculum and qualifications were being introduced at a "time of significant budgetary pressure", said Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union.
"Some issues remain to be addressed, not least the excessive teacher workload associated with the introduction of the new qualifications and the perceived over-assessment around course units," he added.
Maths `more demanding than intended'
Pupils sitting the old maths Higher this year had to score 12 points more than their peers sitting the new Higher in order to pass the exam.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) admits that the new Higher maths exam "proved more demanding than intended."
As a result, it says, "the grade boundaries were reduced". In order to achieve a C for the new Higher, for instance, candidates had to score 44 out of a possible 130 points. For the old Higher, the pass mark was 56.
The new maths Higher provoked a storm of protest when pupils sat the exam in May, with students taking to social media to complain about the level of difficulty and launching petitions demanding answers from the SQA.