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INSIDE TRACK: Findings that could reopen a heated education debate

Changes to the examination system make it particularly difficult to interpret this year's results.

However, you could have bet the farm on there being impressively high success rates for the new National 4 and 5 examinations, replacements for the former Standard Grade Credit and General awards.

Cynics might claim that anything less than the respective 93 per cent and 81 per cent success rates would have been politically unacceptable. If the Government couldn't manage the transition from Standard Grade to National 4 and 5, what prospect was there of it managing the transition to independence?

However, that does serious injustice to Scottish youngsters and teachers who have worked hard to deliver what appears, initially at least, to be extremely encouraging results. My straw poll of headteachers suggests they are generally happy with their pupils' performances. Anecdotally, many foresaw the political imperative and entered a greater proportion of pupils for National 5 than for the former credit awards at Standard Grade.

Interestingly, there may be evidence that pupils who continued to study eight subjects did better than those in schools where they were limited to six. Aberdeenshire's Ellon Academy was one where pupils continued to study eight subjects. Rector Tim McKay says that 60 per cent of pupils gained at least five or more National 5 awards compared to 44 per cent who obtained five credit awards at Standard Grade last year. In another Aberdeenshire school where pupils also studied eight subjects, 71 per cent obtained five or more National 5 awards.

In contrast, in a third broadly similar school where pupils studied six subjects, 44 per cent obtained five or more National 5 awards, down on the proportion obtaining five credit awards the previous year. It is always unwise to draw conclusions from small, unrepresentative samples but many would have expected pupils studying fewer subjects and in greater depth to perform correspondingly more strongly in examinations. If the pattern is repeated on a national basis, it may well reopen the often heated debate on the optimum number of subjects to be studied.

Perhaps more encouragingly for the designers of the new curriculum and assessments, Mr McKay does not put the success of youngsters down to a politically driven numbers game. He attributes his pupils' success to the way in which teachers have adopted new approaches to teaching and learning. Despite initial reservations, he is convinced the new courses and assessments "are more demanding than the former credit courses, particularly for the more able".

Teachers and parents may, to a certain extent, be reassured by the figures for National 4 and 5 examinations. However, many teachers remain concerned about the workload implications of new courses and assessments. There will be continuing concern about how well learning in fourth year articulates with Higher courses, the gold standard for university entry.

With so much at stake, who can blame schools for "playing it safe"? What does that mean for the much-heralded transformational change for Scottish education? Watch this space.

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