Higher results see record year for pupils

Broughton High School pupil Nicola Wilson. Picture: Lesley Martin
Broughton High School pupil Nicola Wilson. Picture: Lesley Martin
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Secondaries have shrugged off fears over the introduction of new exams as pupils landed record Higher results.

Youngsters sat Curriculum for Excellence Higher tests for the first time in May, as the exams were matched to new National 4 and 5 qualifications which replaced Standard Grades last year.

Figures show 58 per cent of S5 pupils scored at least one Higher pass this year – up four per cent on last year and 16 per cent above the level recorded in 2009.

Nearly two-thirds of S6 pupils – 63 per cent – achieved success at Higher level, marking a two per cent improvement on 2014.

And with many students sitting a mix of both old and new Highers, the overall pass rate among those taking updated exams was above that of those opting for the old tests.

There had been fears that lack of official textbooks and past papers would scupper pupils’ chances of success.

It emerged candidates sitting this year’s maths Higher were “reduced to tears” by the difficulty of some of the questions, with 14,000 signing online petitions to complain.

Exam chiefs today admitted that a review had found the new maths exam was “more demanding than expected”, with more account taken of its difficulty to ensure candidates got results they deserved.

Parent leaders in the Capital said the improvement in results would come as a relief to families amid fears over the impact of exams reform.

Michael McTernan, parent council member at Portobello High, the city’s largest secondary, said: “It’s really heartening they have gone up this year – it’s brilliant. I think parents will be very relieved – the results you get at National 5 and Higher have a huge impact on your career. They are so important.

“The fact the results have improved is fantastic and it’s almost certainly down to the hard work of teachers.”

He added: “I would have thought that results at Portobello will follow the city-wide trend. There’s growing energy around the school just now.”

Across the city, 6354 pupils took the old Highers in 2015, with pupils hitting a pass rate of 77 per cent.

By comparison, 82 per cent of 4693 candidates sitting new Highers achieved success.

And among S4 pupils, 39 per cent of the roll achieved five qualifications at National 5 level – an increase of over one per cent from last year.

Education leaders today stressed that, while the strong performance of Edinburgh schools over most categories was maintained in 2015, far-reaching changes to the education system meant direct year-on-year comparisons had become complex.

A new benchmarking tool called Insight has now been introduced to provide a wider range of measures against which schools across the Capital will be tracked, including whether pupils go into further education or work.

It will also take into account pupils’ socio-economic backgrounds and the performance of schools against similar campuses.

While the 2015 pass rate dipped in some areas, the positive overall trend – particularly at Higher level – has been welcomed by union leaders.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary at the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country’s largest teaching union, said staff and pupils 
deserved praise.

“The results that have been announced today are a credit to the hard work of teachers and pupils across Scotland and we should acknowledge and celebrate this success,” he said.

“Everyone involved in Scottish education will want to take some time to examine the detail of these results and reflect on the impact of the changes to the system.

“Some issues remain to be addressed, however, not least being the excessive teacher workload associated with the introduction of the new qualifications and the perceived over-assessment around course units, which creates pressure for both pupils and staff.

“The EIS will continue to highlight these concerns with the Scottish Government and the relevant national education bodies, including the Scottish Qualifications Authority.”

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, the fastest growing teachers’ union in Scotland, said: “This year’s record number of Higher passes is a testament to the hard work of pupils and the dedication and commitment of their teachers who have supported them in achieving today’s 
excellent results.

“This achievement is particularly significant given that this year saw the first students sit the new Highers as part of the ongoing introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence.

“The introduction of the reforms to the curriculum and qualifications system has been an immensely challenging time of transition for teachers and schools.”

Opposition councillors praised teachers for the rising pass rate and said they hoped the Capital’s continued exams success would boost the appeal of city-run schools.

Councillor Jason Rust, Conservative education spokesman, said: “I welcome the improved attainment and congratulate pupils and also staff on this performance.

“There were a number of concerns expressed previously about lack of past papers and additional stress on pupils and teachers, so it is particularly pleasing to see these results.

“Hopefully these can be built upon for future years and will encourage more families to opt into the state sector in Edinburgh.”

Bosses at the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) said 2015 was the final year for Intermediate 1, Intermediate 2 and the existing Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications.

The new Advanced Higher qualifications will be available in the 2015-16 school session.

Dr Janet Brown, SQA chief executive and Scotland’s chief examining officer, said: “The introduction of Curriculum for Excellence has been one of the biggest changes to the Scottish education system for a generation.

“These results show that all of the hard work has been worthwhile with significant progress being made towards full implementation of CfE and the new qualifications.”

She added: “We also want to recognise the achievements of candidates in the full range of qualifications being awarded today.

“There is a broadening recognition of the different ways candidates can demonstrate their skills and achieve success, whether it be National 5, the new or existing Higher, Advanced Higher, Skills for Work or National Progression Awards.

“Our assessments and qualifications have been designed to provide people with the skills required to succeed today and in the future whether that be further study, training or employment.”

‘Our teachers were very good at explaining the course differences’

DUNCAN Bowyer, 18, sat advanced Highers in maths, physics and chemistry, as well as Higher biology, at Craigmount High.

Now preparing to take up his place as a chemistry undergraduate at St Andrews University, he paid tribute to his teachers for devising a range of class methods to ensure pupils were ready to face new exams.

But he said “uncertainty” surrounding the tests had caused worry.

He said: “It’s good to know I am leaving behind all the uncertainty – all those changes won’t be happening at university.

“Our teachers were very good at explaining the differences between the courses. They were good at explaining the difference so we knew when we were looking at old material, which bits we did not need to know any more.

“For some courses, there are no official textbooks and there were lots of resources that the teachers had made themselves.”

‘It’s exciting. Everything you’ve been building up to is happening’

NICOLA Wilson, 16, has just finished S5 at Broughton High, where she sat old Highers in maths and geography and new Highers in drama, French and English.

She plans to study speech and language therapy at Strathclyde University and said the experience of sitting older and updated tests at the same time felt like a “massive guessing game”.

She said: “I feel relieved that it’s finished because you’re waiting to do your Highers throughout your whole life – they are made out to be the be all and end all.

“With maths, I definitely did not feel confident and it comforts me to hear everyone felt that way.

“It’s really exciting to be at this point, that everything you’ve been building up to is actually happening.”

Nicola said her family had been a major source of inspiration when choosing career options.

“My aunt is a speech and language therapist – I’ve seen her in her job and that’s something I’m really interested in,” she said.

She will stay on for S6 and study advanced Higher drama and geography, and Higher psychology.

She would also like to complete an Open University module in autism studies.

“For my sixth year, I just wanted to do the subjects that I enjoy,” she said.

ANALYSIS

By Paul Godzik, Education convener, Edinburgh City Council

Early indications from the SQA exam results show that 2015 has been another really positive year for our pupils which is really encouraging.

It’s a real achievement to have not only sustained but built on the successes of last year.

I also want to congratulate all our teaching staff on their commitment to delivering learning experiences of the highest standards especially given the introduction of the new exams.

Our pupils should be very proud of themselves, too – all their hard work has certainly paid off and praise should also go to parents who have supported their children over the past year.

The council is committed to making sure all school-leavers enter a positive destination of employment, training or further education.

This year, a record 93.1 per

cent of young people achieved and sustained a positive destination through initiatives such as the Edinburgh Guarantee.

We will be looking to build on this in the future and look forward to seeing many more placements and positive results.

Helpline opens

EDUCATION Secretary Angela Constance visited the Skills Development Scotland (SDS) helpline centre as staff prepared for a flood of queries after publication of results for national qualifications.

SDS bosses have urged pupils not to panic.

The helpline will be open from 8am until 8pm on August 4 and 5, and from 9am until 5pm daily until August 12. The number to call is 0808 100 8000.