45% of Scots pupils taking Highers to sit old exam

ALMOST half of Scottish pupils taking Highers this year will sit the old exam and not the new qualification, according to provisional figures.

Two-thirds of pupils in biology, physics and chemistry will stick with the old Higher exam this summer. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Two-thirds of pupils in biology, physics and chemistry will stick with the old Higher exam this summer. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Schools were given the option to phase in the new Highers after teaching unions raised concerns about their implementation. All pupils will study for the new qualifications, brought in as part of the Curriculum for Excellence reforms, from the 2015-16 school year on.

New figures from the Scottish Qualifications Authority show that, of 217,976 provisional Higher entries across S5 and S6 this year, 120,557 (55 per cent) are for the new exams and 97,419 (45 per cent) for existing Highers. The Scottish Government is being accused of rushing through the overhaul and there are concerns that the accuracy of pupils’ grades may suffer in the transition period.

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Opposition parties at Holyrood are now calling for an investigation.

Only a third of pupils will sit the new science Higher this summer – which takes in biology, chemistry and physics – while 65 per cent will sit the existing exam.

Almost half will sit the old Higher in maths, yesterday’s figures revealed.

Union leaders have voiced concerns over a lack of funds, materials and preparation time.

Jane Peckham, national official for Scotland of the NASUWT, said the teachers were “on their knees” after the introduction of the National Four and Five exams last year to replace Standard Grades.

She said: “It’s a huge concern. The expectation that they would suddenly turn to the new Higher is completely unrealistic. These things need to be phased in sensibly, fully resourced, everyone on the same page with what they’re doing.”

“To expect teachers to be able to have all the confidence in the resources for the new Higher right off the bat, having done the National Fours and Fives, is just unreasonable.”

There are also fears of a “knock-on effect” for pupils who sit the old Higher, but then possibly have to sit the new Advanced Highers.

More pupils are taking the new English Higher (61 per cent) and the number of Highers taken overall this year has reached a record high.

Seamus Searson, incoming general secretary of the SSTA union, said the transition period is likely to mean “there will be mistakes made”.

“There hasn’t been enough time to get this thing through carefully and that concerns us,” he said. “A lot of teachers have made a commitment to the new exams but they shouldn’t be penalised if, in the end, the exam results aren’t as good as we would expect.”

Asked if this could mean grades suffer, he said: “There’s always a chance that will happen and that’s what worries teachers and is probably why a good number of schools are sticking to the old exams – safe rather than sorry.”

The new Higher was supposed to have been fully introduced this year, but former education secretary Michael Russell agreed to allow schools to opt out for a year after he came under pressure from teaching unions.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “The very high take-up demonstrates the wisdom of pursuing this option. Schools and teachers know what is best for their pupils and it is clear that, for this year, many believe that the existing Higher is the preferable choice.”

The new exams are part of an overhaul of classroom teaching as part of the Curriculum for Excellence which aims to make education in Scotland more broadly based and focused on learning, not assessment.

The new education secretary, Angela Constance, said: “We know from provisional entry data from the Scottish Qualifications Authority that significant numbers of those pupils taking Highers this year have been studying the new Highers. We listened to schools who requested flexibility, and we acted.”

She added that schools are making “good use of this flexibility” and the new qualifications are being phased in, in a “sensible way”. But Lib Dem education spokesman Liam McArthur called for a probe into the high number of schools sticking with the old exam. “Investigations must be made into today’s figures,” he said.

“With as many as two-thirds of schools yet to participate in the new Higher in sciences, and only one year until all schools have to adopt them, the education secretary should continue to update parliament on the status of the new curriculum.”

Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said low uptake in science was a particular concern.

And Tory Liz Smith asked: “If pupils have studied for the new Higher, will the new Advanced Higher be ready on time? That is a very important question and it needs to be urgently addressed.”