Teachers and schools have been getting something right over the past 25 years, a conference at Edinburgh University will hear today (Friday), David Henderson writes. In the early 1980s, more than half of British 16-year-olds said school had done little to prepare them for life, but this fell to one in three by 1999.
An analysis of leavers' surveys in England, Wales and Scotland, largely during the era of unbroken Conservative government, shows young Scots doing better than their peers south of the border. Exam attainment and entry to university was far higher north of the border.
Linda Croxford, of the Centre for Educational Sociology at Edinburgh University, says young people became increasingly positive about their school experience. They appreciated the confidence they gained to make decisions and the things they learnt that would be useful in a job.
In a paper to today's conference, Dr Croxford states: "Differences within Britain are important. Average parental social class was higher in the south of England than elsewhere in Britain, and average attainment was higher in the south of England than in the north of England or Wales.
"However, more young people achieved post-compulsory qualifications and entered higher education in Scotland than elsewhere. The different education system in Scotland was the key factor.
"The socio-economic context of Scotland was similar to that in the north of England or Wales, but attainment of post-compulsory qualifications and entry to higher education were substantially higher in Scotland than south of the border."
She argues that a key difference between Scotland and England is the far higher proportion of Scots who attend comprehensive schools "characterised by more social mixing compared with the diverse range of state schools in England". The independent sector is larger in England and there are many more single-sex and faith schools.
Dr Croxford and her fellow researchers believe the "creation of quasi-markets in education" went further in England than in Scotland or Wales. The introduction of Standard grade also allowed certification for a much wider range of abilities.
Across Britain in the mid-1980s, more than 40 per cent of young people left school with no exam passes by age 16 and 58 per cent left at the first opportunity. By the end of the 1990s, the proportion with no exam passes was halved and more than half of the cohort achieved five or more passes at A-C. Girls did better than boys.
The researchers say that Scotland's socio-economic context had more in common with the north of England and Wales, but Scotland in the late 1990s had fewer lower attainers than the south of England. "We may suggest that this may be a reflection of a more inclusive education system in Scotland,"
Dr Croxford states.