Gulf grows in Higher exam pass rates

THE GAP between exam results at Scotland’s state and private schools has widened, with the independent sector pushing up its Higher pass rate again this year.

Figures released yesterday show almost half of Higher passes reported by private schools were at grade A. At the same time, pupils at the independent schools are thought to have avoided the significant drop in passes in Higher English seen in the state sector.

The pass rate for Highers among independent schools was 90%, up 1% on last year, while 48% of passes were at grade A, up 3% on last year.

The rise means the percentage of A passes at fee-paying schools has increased from just over a third (36% in 2001) to just under half in two years.

The overall pass rate this year for all schools, including both state and independent schools, was 69.6%. That represents a drop of 0.1% on 2002 and 2.3% on 2001, suggesting the gap in academic achievement between private and state sectors has increased slightly.

Among schools entering 25 or more pupils for Highers, the High School of Glasgow achieved 63.3% to top the A grade table, as it did last year. It also recorded a 96.2% pass rate, up slightly on last year, when it came second to St Columba’s School in Kilmacolm. It entered all its fifth-year pupils, including those with learning difficulties, for five Highers.

Rector Robin Easton, who retires next year to be replaced by his deputy Colin Mair, said: "What is so encouraging is that all pupils are achieving success, and not just the most able."

In the 2003 league table the High School maintained its place at the head of the country’s large city schools, although it was only narrowly ahead of two all-girls schools, St Margaret’s in Aberdeen and Edinburgh’s Mary Erskine School. St Margaret’s had a 95.4% pass rate, with 58.6% of passes at grade A. Mary Erskine’s had 94.8% passes, 56.9% of which were at grade A.

St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, which last year achieved a 94% pass rate and 45% A grade passes, this year returned figures of 93.8% and 59.6%, putting it behind its two main competitors in terms of overall passes, but ahead on A grades.

The figures, released by the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), show the top 25 schools all achieved a pass rate of 80% or more at Higher.

Among schools with pupils sitting A Levels, several achieved 100% pass rates. However, those figures are based on grades A to E, whereas only grades A to C count as passes in Highers.

The Mary Erskine School achieved 100% A or A* grades at A Level, although it only had three sixth year A Level candidates. St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh managed 69% of its passes at A or A* with an entry of 44 candidates.

Earlier this month, education minister Peter Peacock was forced to defend Scotland’s exam system after a big drop in the number of state school pupils passing Higher English. The pass rate was 59.2%, down from 64.7% last year. Detailed figures were not available for independent schools, but SCIS said they did not appear to have suffered the same trend.

By comparison with Highers, Standard Grade passes across all schools rose from 96.7% to 96.8%, Intermediate 1 passes went up from 62.4% to 64.6%, and Intermediate 2 passes increased from 68.5% to 69.6%.

Judith Sischy, director of the SCIS, said: "The striking feature about the independent sector at the moment is that its results are so consistently good.

"It is incredible year after year when each year group and each pupil is different. We really don’t see any major changes. It’s a remarkable set of results for such a large group of schools."

She said there was now a "pretty wide" gap between the independent sector, many of whose members are selective in their entrance policies, and state schools in terms of academic results.

However, Sischy cautioned against league tables of schools, saying the current education system was too complex for bald comparisons. "It’s increasingly flexible and tables don’t reflect schools’ policies on which pupils are entered for which exams, for example. I don’t see any merit in league tables.

"We’ve done surveys and frankly exam results aren’t top of people’s wish list when it comes to selecting a school. They are important but they rank fourth or fifth, behind factors such as a desire for a good all-round education and a caring, supportive environment."

Sischy said the private school sector was in good health, but

added: "I don’t think school can be much fun for students these days when they have so many exams to sit all the time."

Overall demand for independent education in Scotland has increased in recent years and the largest schools have waiting lists for admissions. Sischy said that trend appeared likely to continue despite rising fees. "The indications are that independent schools continue to be popular. A lot were very large to start with, but they remain full with waiting lists."

Patrea More Nisbett, of the Good Schools Guide, said: "The main difference between what the state and independent sectors can offer remains in class sizes, which are still smaller in independent schools. However, that is changing."

Commenting on the private school results, Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said: "They don’t measure very much at all, except that independent schools have a selective intake. Research shows that, like for like, children perform equally well in the state and independent sectors."