Leader comment: Next step is to prove exam results are not a blip

Exam results are usually an easy target to criticise. If results show any deterioration, education is failing. And if they improve, then it must be because exams are too easy.

Education Secretary John Swinney, tasked by Nicola Sturgeon with improving falling standards, meets pupils as they receive their exam results.
Education Secretary John Swinney, tasked by Nicola Sturgeon with improving falling standards, meets pupils as they receive their exam results.

But this year’s National, Higher and Advanced Higher results brought little for opposition parties to seize upon, recording slight drops in pass rates but with overall figures very similar to last year. The finger was instead pointed at a drop in entries in some subjects, and it was also claimed that this year’s results were achieved in spite of the system rather than because of it. But considering that education is the most vulnerable part of the SNP administration’s record in government, these are not killer blows.

And not only are this year’s results something of a relief for the Scottish Government, which has been hit by one damning report after another on education, there was also a suggestion of progress being made. A record number of pupils from Scotland’s most deprived communities have won a place at university, representing a 13 per rise on last year.

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Could this be evidence of the attainment gap? Nicola Sturgeon has asked to be judged on her administration’s record on education, and while yesterday’s results are a step in the right direction, it is too early to say if the record figure has enduring significance.

And although percentage rises always appear to be good news, we must remember that we are talking about small numbers of students. This record amount from deprived areas adds up to just 4,150 people – and if we go back to percentages, that’s just 14 per cent of the overall number of students who are going on to university. It is perhaps unrealistic to think that the balance will ever be 50-50, but the imbalance remains heavily in favour of those who are better off, and there is a long way to go before we can say that the gap is being bridged.

What we need to see next is evidence of progress via other indicators, such as annual statistics on numeracy and literacy, and eventually, Pisa, the international comparator, as well as further closing of the gap in next year’s exam results.

For the sake of those going through the education system, who have so much at stake, we must hope that yesterday’s figures represent a turning point. They have brought the Scottish Government some breathing space, but for the future candidates who are next to come through the system, there is no time to lose.