Scottish Office figures on exam passes over the past 10 years underline the urgent need for the Higher Still reforms, the Educational Institute of Scotland and the Headteachers' Association of Scotland said this week.
The previous steady increase in Higher passes dipped in 1994-95 at the same time as the number of school registrations for the National Certificate continued to outstrip those in further education colleges. Pupils accounted for 53 per cent of registrations in 1994-95.
Fred Forrester, EIS depute general secretary, said: "Highers are not appropriate for 40-60 per cent of the cohort and that is why Higher Still is required. Nobody is that enthusiastic about Scotvec modules but they have been available and teachers have used them. It is a pragmatic response."
John Mitchell, the HAS's president, said: "We have reached the maximum we can get out of the system and any kids who have a chance of Highers are staying on."
Mr Mitchell believed the apparent drop in Higher passes may well be due to increased numbers taking Scotvec modules, particularly in English and mathematics in S5. "The numbers in Scotvec will continue to grow and that will lead to Higher Still. The two systems are already coming together."
He added: "The exams are not any easier. Standards are higher and kids and teachers are working harder."
Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, said he was delighted to see a sustained improvement in the qualifications of school-leavers. "The increase in the percentage leaving school with three or more Highers has risen from 21 per cent in 1984-85 to 29 per cent in 1994-95. The number leaving with no SCE qualifications has dropped from 25 per cent in 1984-85 to 8 per cent in 1994-95."
Mr Robertson insisted: "We are not complacent, however."
In 1984-85, 11.8 per cent of leavers gained one or two Highers. This rose to a peak of 14.4 per cent in 1992-93 but fell in the two subsequent years to 14 per cent. The number gaining three or four passes was 10.4 per cent in 1984-85. This rose to a high of 12.7 per cent in 1992-1993 and has fallen to 12. 3 per cent. In 1984-85, 10.5 per cent gained five or more Highers. This rose to 18.1 per cent in 1993-94 but fell by 1.1 per cent in 1994-95.
Figures for the National Certificate in 1994-95 show 53 per cent of students registering for modules come from local authority schools, 39 per cent from FE colleges and 8 per cent from other centres.