Leaders: Higher hopes achieved but gap remains

THE annual day of reckoning has arrived for school pupils and students whose summer has been defined by a long wait for exam results.

143,000 people await the release of their results, with employment, further education places and long-term career plans hanging in the balance. Picture: PA

Today, 143,000 people await the release of their results, with employment, further education places and long-term career plans hanging in the balance.

They are not the only ones who might have lost sleep in recent weeks as the big date has come closer, because also put to the test this year was the exam system itself. The implementation of the new Highers under the Curriculum for Excellence policy pursued by the SNP government has not been plain sailing, and a poor set of results would have heaped further pressure on the Holyrood administration at a time when the First Minister has acknowledged that literacy and numeracy standards in Scottish education are not good enough.

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Education secretary Angela Constance will be relieved that those sitting the new Highers have recorded a 79.2 per cent pass rate, 2.5 per cent higher than that achieved by those sitting the existing – “old” – Highers. There is talk of an attainment gap, but in truth, a dead heat for the pass rate is unlikely, and the gap is not a chasm. Additionally, there would be greater cause for alarm if the new system had been outperformed by the existing one, re-opening the question of whether reforms were desirable or necessary. A worse scenario would have been the new Highers underperforming, and those sitting the exams believing that they had been irresponsibly disadvantaged in their roles as guinea pigs, at a time in their lives when we must not fail them.

Nor should we get too worked up about the emergence of a two-tier system, because all schools will adopt the new Highers system next year.

The Curriculum for Excellence has had its share of critics since it was first announced, not least from the teachers who have faced having to implement change that will at times have appeared bewildering. Would they, or could they, be ready in time? The government deserves credit here, for giving schools and local authorities the choice over whether to go with new Highers this year, or delay until next year to allow more preparation and stick with the existing system in the meantime.

Our teachers should also be acknowledged for their role in achieving these results, when their workload has increased and their stress levels will have reached new highs during the process of change.

Of course, all this does not smooth over the current problems in Scottish education. The big challenge, as pointed out today by Scottish Conservative young people spokeswoman Liz Smith, is the attainment gap between pupils from poorer and wealthier backgrounds. It will take more than re-working the exam system to address this disadvantage.

Libor case Hayes may be just the start

As city trader Tom Hayes was sentenced 14 years in jail for rigging Libor rates yesterday, Mr Justice Cooke told him: “Though the type of activity you were involved in was commonplace and common practice, not considered as wrong by those involved… the fact that others were doing the same as you is no excuse. Nor is the fact that your managers saw the benefits of what you were doing and condoned it, embraced it, even encouraged it.”

It is clear that an example has been made of Hayes, and at 14 years, his sentence should be an effective deterrent. Many observers will be surprised at the length of the sentence, even though it represents punishment for fraud conducted on a scale which helped to bring the financial world to it knees.

But the words of the sentencing judge will trouble others. Although Hayes

has been described as the ringleader, Mr Justice Cooke makes reference to many complicit parties, without whose involvement Hayes would not have succeeded. Following the collapse and disgrace of the banking system, to which this kind of conduct contributed, there have been precious few appearances in the dock by those who could be held accountable. The dozens of traders who have been fired have not – so far – been reflected by the numbers in the dock.

Hayes is the first of the rogue traders to be brought to justice. A further 11 people await trial, after the Serious Fraud Office received special funding from the Treasury to pursue prosecutions. Beyond those 11, it is likely many others will lose sleep this week over how close they have come to the fate of Tom Hayes.