Neil Munro analyses the latest statistics on leavers and school costs.
Almost half of the 60,381 leavers from Scottish state schools went to university or college last year - and the numbers taking up a higher education place have increased despite the row over tuition fees and student grants.
The 47 per cent who entered full-time higher and further education compares with 43 per cent three years ago. Leaver destination figures show that 29 per cent went into higher education, 25 per cent found a job, 18 per cent opted for FE and 11 per cent took a place on a training programme.
The 29 per cent entering higher education represents a 1 per cent rise on the previous year, suggesting that tuition charges and the ending of student maintenance grants do not appear to have had a deterrent effect. The data was compiled in October, three months after the Government announced its student loan proposals.
Otherwise there are no major surprises in the figures which show, as expected, that East Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire continue to top the table for university entrance, at 43 per cent and 42 per cent respectively.
Sir E Scott School in Harris sent more students to higher education than any other education authority secondary, 63 per cent compared with 32 per cent three years ago. But this is a classic reflection of fluctuations produced by small numbers. The school had just 19 leavers last year.
Glasgow continues to languish at the bottom of the higher education league. With 17 per cent of leavers going on to university, the city is the only education authority with fewer than 20 per cent of leavers entering higher education. But some Glasgow schools, notably John Street and St Leonard's secondaries, sent significant numbers to higher education for the first time in three years - just as the council prepares to shut them down.
Stewart McLachlan, head at John Street, said the school had taken specific steps to raise pupil aspirations. The improvement was "the result of sustained staff effort over a number of years. We try to operate a praise and reward system based on the three As - attendance, attitude and attainment."
Aberdeenshire showed the largest increase in numbers opting for higher education over the past three years, up from 28 per cent to 36 per cent. Mearns Academy had 17 per cent more leavers going on to higher education than three years ago, at 33 per cent. But the school also recorded a 12-point fall in the numbers entering employment since 1995 and had nobody on training programmes. There were, however, only 68 leavers.
Local factors were also at work in Shetland where there was an eight-point fall in the number of leavers going into higher education over the three years alongside a 13-point rise in those going into a job. The proportion of Shetland youngsters entering employment stood at 37 per cent last year, the highest in Scotland and two points ahead of Aberdeen and Highland.
HMI's commentary offers the usual cautionary note that higher education intakes may reflect the abilities in a particular year group, that small numbers introduce distortions and that figure may be affected by the local jobs market.
The experience of Brae High in Shetland illustrates these points perfectly, with an almost exact reversal of the 1995-96 position when 40 per cent of its 42 leavers went into higher education and 20 per cent found jobs. Last year 19 per cent entered higher education and 40 per cent were in employment.
Andy Carter, principal careers officer in Shetland, said that while the islands always had a high level of entrants into jobs and training the number of leavers is small causing considerable fluctuations in destinations: 303 last year and 350 the year before.
"There has been a great deal of concern here about student finance," Mr Carter said. "In addition to that, school-leavers know it is possible to get a job and there has always been a tradition of 'I'll bide hame for a year and make a bit of cash before going south'."
Jobs account for the lowest proportion of leavers in South Ayrshire where only 12 per cent took that route, 13 per cent below the national average and half the figure even for the jobs blackspot of Glasgow. Local factors are at work there too, according to David Mowat, Ayrshire's principal careers officer. "There has always been a greater number of leavers going on to university in South Ayrshire compared with North and East," Mr Mowat says. The figures are also affected where a high proportion of leavers find a Skillseekers place with an employer and are therefore counted as being in employment rather than training.
Further education is the most popular option in the Western Isles, at 29 per cent. Combined with the 37 per cent moving on to higher education, this means that 66 per cent of Western Isles students leave school for college and university, more than in any other education authority.
FE is also popular in the Borders where a recent research report noted the lack of higher education and job opportunities. Some 26 per cent of leavers went to college last year and all nine secondaries sent more than one in five pupils to FE. Jedburgh Grammar provided the highest number, sending 36 per cent to FE which represented an 8-point rise for the college route and a 15-point fall in higher education in one year. But, like Mearns Academy, the number of leavers was small (78).
Independent schools continued to have a high proportion of leavers entering higher education, with eight schools recording figures of more than 90 per cent. The grant-aided Jordanhill School in Glasgow had 71 per cent going on to higher education, an 8-point increase on three years ago.