The myth of a broad curriculum for the ablest senior pupils is exposed in research published by the Scottish Examination Board just before it ceased to exist on Tuesday.
The majority of fifth-year candidates who pass four or five Highers have only English on the arts side. Their other passes are in mathematics and the sciences.
A study of last year's Higher results showed that the commonest five-subject combination, passed by 590 candidates, was English, mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics. In the next commonest group, with 402 candidates, biology is replaced by geography. This is followed by a 302-strong group who hold computing studies in addition to English, maths, physics and chemistry. Only the fourth commonest group, 266 pupils, features a language, French.
The same pattern applies to possessors of four Highers, 468 of whom have English, maths, chemistry and physics. Biology and geography are included in the two next most common quartets.
Proponents of the Scottish post-16 system have claimed that it allows pupils to continue with a mix of arts and science subjects in contrast to the narrower A-level curriculum south of the border. The Higher Still programme is framed with the intention of allowing able pupils to achieve a broad range of Highers and Advanced Highers. But the cognate nature of the commonest groups is bound to raise questions about breadth in practice.
The SEB's research paper also accepts some subjects are harder than others. It states: "The board makes every effort to ensure that all Higher grade subjects are of approximately equal level of demand, as measured by the national ratings. However, some differences remain, with mathematics, the sciences and modern languages tending to be 'difficult', and art and design, English, secretarial studies and craft and design 'easy'."
But more band A passes are awarded in "difficult" subjects. The board says that is because they are more likely to be attempted by the abler candidates.
Similar patterns are said to exist in England, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
The reason for Higher Still's attention to the less able pupils is clear from the fact that among fifth-year candidates who sat a single Higher only 37 per cent passed. The commonest subject was English, followed by secretarial studies and art and design. Of candidates successful in two subjects, 55 per cent got English, with art and design, geography, biology and mathematics the next most popular subjects.
Subject Choice at Higher Grade: Presentations and Success (SEB research bulletin 7) is available from the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Ironmills Road, Dalkeith EH22 1LE.