Higher exam pass rates in Scotland have fallen for the third successive year, prompting fresh concerns about declining standards in schools.
More than 135,000 pupils in Scotland found out how they had done in their National 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers yesterday.
Education Secretary John Swinney insisted that the overall pass rate “remains high” and said there will be always be variations year on year.
But opponents said “clear trends” of falling standards are now emerging in recent years and have called for an urgent investigation to identify the root of the decline. Mr Swinney hailed the “really great achievement” of Scots youngsters.
“It is clear that our young people have performed strongly, against rigorous standards, and are now in an exciting position to decide what they go on to do next,” he said. “It is important to remember that we will always see slight variations in pass rates and the results show that we have a robust, credible assessment system in place.
“To address pupil and teacher workload, this is the first year where unit assessments have been removed from National 5 and the overall pass rate remains high at 77.4 per cent.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she wants to be “judged” on her education record in tackling attainment gap between poorer and more affluent areas.
But the number of youngsters achieving passes at grades A to C in the Highers fell slightly from 77 per cent to 76.8 per cent compared with 2017. In 2016 the figure stood at 77.2 per cent. National 5 level pass rates fell by 2 per cent to 77.4 per cent, while at National 4 the rate also fell by about 1.7 per cent.
Advanced Higher passes rose to 19,585, with a pass rate of 80.5 per cent.
There has also been little sign of improvement in the key STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects where ministers are targeting improved performance to spearhead the technologically-based smart Scottish economy of the future.
Performance at Higher level in engineering and physics fell, although maths and chemistry were up. Pass rates in English also slumped by about 2 per cent in both Higher and National 5.
Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: “The real concern is that these falls in attainment are now clear trends over a number of years.
“It would appear that years of cuts to school budgets and teacher numbers, along with the narrowing of the curriculum and reduced course choice are now having an impact on exam results.
“Until now John Swinney has refused even to acknowledge these problems, preferring to waste time on governance reforms no-one wants or supports.
“He must now face up to these worrying trends, have them urgently investigated and tell us what action he intends to take to improve our schools.
“Our exam results continue to do great credit to the hard work of our teachers and young people. They deserve a government which backs them with the resources our schools need.”
More than £400 million has been axed from schools funding in Scotland since the start of the decade, official figures this week revealed. Scotland’s schools recorded their worst-ever performance in the latest set of Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) figures, with declines for scores in maths, reading and science.
Tory education spokesman Liz Smith said: “There’s no escaping the fact that, for a government which claims its priority is education, these are disappointing statistics.
“There has been no improvement in overall attainment across the board and these statistics confirm there are still major issues about the mix between National 4 and National 5 qualifications. That’s down to decisions this SNP government has taken, and exposes the complacency it has shown towards education.”
Green MSP Ross Greer said: “Careful consideration needs given to this third consecutive drop in Higher passes and the potential of it becoming a trend.
“We cannot pretend that all is rosy in Scottish education when we are down 3500 teachers from a decade ago, those in post are experiencing a workload and morale crisis and the government is more interested in unwanted and unhelpful governance reforms than solving these problems by giving staff and pupils the resources they need.”