Figures released by university admissions body Ucas showed that the number of students from Scotland’s most deprived areas gaining a university place has risen by 13 per cent in a year.
The statistics were issued after around 137,000 pupils who had taken National, Higher and Advanced Higher exams set by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) received their results.
They showed that the number of Higher passes achieved by pupils has exceeded 150,000 for the third year in a row, although the overall pass rate dipped slightly to 77 per cent.
However, opposition parties claimed that pupils had achieved the results “in spite of Scotland’s schools system, not because of it”, highlighting cuts to teacher numbers under the SNP.
Teaching unions also raised concerns over the National 4 qualification after a significant decline in the number of pupils being entered, arguing it had little credibility and was not “fit for purpose”.
A breakdown of the results showed that pupils passed 150,010 Highers, with 77 per cent achieving A-C grades, a decline of 0.2 per cent on last year. The Advanced Higher pass rate also dipped by 1.7 per cent to 80 per cent, with 19,283 A-C grades recorded.
The National 4 and 5 exams sat by 14 to 16-year-olds had very similar results to last year, with pass rates of 92.8 per cent and 79.5 per cent respectively.
Pass marks for most Highers were set at around 50 per cent, with no repeat of the problems with 2015’s Maths exam, when grade boundaries were dramatically lowered after the paper was deemed too difficult.
“I think it shows a very stable system,” SQA chief executive Dr Janet Brown said of this year’s results. “One of the things that we absolutely have to ensure is that standards are maintained, and we can see that candidates are reaching those standards and attaining as they have done in the past.”
The Ucas figures showed that 27,830 pupils from Scotland were offered a place on exams results day – more than in any previous year. Almost all were set to join Scottish universities, where they enjoy free tuition.
The number of students from Scotland’s most deprived areas gaining a university place reached a record high of 4,150, an increase of 680 in the space of two years.
However, such students still only make up 14 per cent of the total, suggesting that the well off are still far more likely to attend university.
Welcoming the figures, Education Secretary John Swinney said the Scottish Government’s goal was that “everyone with the natural talent and ability has the chance to go to university”.
Acknowledging that there was “more to do,” he promised to keep working to widen access and “ensure all of our young people, regardless of circumstance, are given the opportunity to succeed”.
Holyrood’s opposition parties published their own analyses of the SQA figures, with the Scottish Conservatives highlighting a drop in the number of pupils taking Highers in key subjects such as French, German and history.
The number of entrants for this year’s French exam fell by 14.5 per cent compared to 2016, the party said, while for German it was down 13 per cent. For history, the decline was 3.7 per cent.
Scottish Labour, meanwhile, said there had been a 6 per cent fall in students sitting modern languages at Higher, with the number of entrants for social sciences also falling by 4 per cent.
Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Tories, said: “The fundamental problems remain the same: we have too few teachers in classrooms and...we have a school system that doesn’t give enough children the opportunity to really excel and push on.
“Today’s figures show that thousands of school children have done brilliantly and worked hard.”