Post-16 curriculum and assessment reforms that have taken more than a decade to develop are no major advance for many, a study by the Scottish Executive's own researchers has confirmed.
Millions of pounds and endless political and educational capital have been invested in the Higher Still programme but, apparently, for only modest gains.
Ministers have been given a sharp reminder that they have more work to do to slim down the assessment burden on teachers and students while selling the benefits of Higher Still to a wider public.
The main strength is in providing qualifications for all and the principal weakness is the complexity of the new system.
Teachers and universities are less satisfied with the system than they were in 1999 when it was being phased in but further education lecturers, employers, careers staff and training providers are happier. "Much work remains to be done to improve perceptions," says Roger Mullin, the researcher.
In 1999 and 2003, the study involved more than 1,100 teachers, 700 FE lecturers and 200 employers, plus other stakeholders whose main concern continues to be poor communication skills.
"Comments received from employers, higher education admissions staff, careers guidance staff and training providers suggested that literacy standards among school-leavers were, in many cases, inadequate for either the world of work or higher education study," Mr Mullin states.
School and college staff believe that core skills across the curriculum dilute standards. Reforms also place too much emphasis on assessment and not enough on learning and teaching.
Overall standards have not risen sharply in line with pre-Higher Still expectations. One university admissions officer, comparing 1999 and 2003, said: "While it would be difficult to argue that across the range of Higher and Advanced Higher subjects there has been a lowering of standards, there is a widely-held view that, in certain subjects, either the curriculum or the attainment level of university entrants no longer meets the requirements of particular degree courses."
Another added: "The new qualifications are too complicated, (and rely on) too much use of continuous assessment. Students require time to absorb information so that it is retained for later studies."
Teachers and universities comment that courses of study are not helped if they become a series of assessment hurdles. Bi-level teaching is said by some to weaken standards.
Lecturers and teachers further report inconsistencies in standards across subjects, departments and schools with the pressure of assessments compromising the quest for higher standards. They also believe the system is likely to produce rogue results because of the complex assessments, with those not up to standard more likely to attain an award.
One in four teachers and one in three lecturers believe the system produces assessment errors that lead to students gaining awards they do not deserve.
The workload burden on students is also greater than four years ago. Mr Mullin reports: "For these reasons, school respondents do not believe that the new National Qualifications system has satisfied the aim of being simple and effective."
But everyone except the universities believes the new system has delivered improvements by providing recognised qualifications for all levels of ability. Some confusion remains around the standing of Intermediate 2 courses. Teachers rate it on a par with Standard grade, college staff above but employers and training providers below.
An Evaluation of the Higher Still Reforms is published in the Insight series and is available on the Scottish Executive publications website.
* Howie's history
In 1990, the Howie Committee began to look at courses and certification in S5 and S6 and reported in March 1992. Two years later, the Scottish Office published its Higher Still reforms, after ditching the Howie recommendations. The programme was phased in after years of protest and concerns about funding, training and resources. Subject reviews are continuing to cut the assessment burdens on teachers, and subjects such as English and art and design are running sores in the profession.