Independent schools alter qualification focus

7th August 2009 at 01:00
A-levels ditched in preference for Advanced Highers

The advanced Higher's growing popularity can be partly explained by its having surpassed the A-level in the eyes of higher education.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has raised its tariff, while Oxford and Cambridge universities typically seek three As at A- level, but only two As and a B at Advanced Higher.

Independent schools in Scotland have been ditching A-levels for the increasingly prestigious Advanced Highers - 17 per cent of entries this year came from the independent sector, even though it accounts for a smaller proportion of secondary pupils.

Dollar Academy bears this out: where once A-levels were the bedrock of sixth year, now scores of pupils sit Advanced Highers. There will be 51 Advanced Higher biology students next year - likely to represent about 2 per cent of all biology candidates at that level in Scotland.

But some local authority schools also embrace Advanced Higher. Glasgow's Hillhead High offered 13 subjects last year and 11 this year, some through other schools. Headteacher Willie Wight said it was more common in Glasgow schools to offer four or five.

One Hillhead pupil, Xiang Long, sat five Advanced Highers in sixth year, achieving four As and a C (English) to add to maths last year. He plans to study computer science and maths at Cambridge University.

Xiang, who spoke no English when he moved to the UK from China in 1999 aged 8, said Advanced Highers were a "more rigorous measure of your academic ability" than A-levels, because they prioritised projects over exams.

He believes Scottish education focuses too much on Highers, because they are the main entry qualifications for Scottish universities. Xiang said pupils should be shown how Advanced Highers could boost careers. He had to travel to independent Glasgow Academy for tuition in some topics, and would like to see more resources for in-house teaching.

Mr Wight said: "I think it's important that pupils keep their foot on the accelerator in sixth year, and Xiang is a great example of someone who's done that. If we don't offer a good range of Advanced Highers, we're not serving the needs of young people."

He warned, however, that this came at a "massive expense" and demanded close collaboration with other schools.

Other highlights from this year's figures

  • Certificates were sent to 159,901 candidates this year, up nearly 1,300 from last year
  • Higher maths passes dropped by nearly 2 per cent
  • The Higher French pass rate dropped by more than 3 per cent
  • Higher physics passes rose by nearly 2 per cent
  • Standard grade entries continue to drop, while there is strong growth at both Intermediate levels
  • Mandarin was offered for the first time at Intermediate 1 but there were only nine entries, and 27 at Intermediate 2.

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