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Relief as new exam system passes test

Exam anxieties are as inevitable as taxes.

Indeed for some of this year's cohort the latter will follow all too swiftly on the heels of the former.

But the trepidation is not just for those who have to sit them. Parents, policy makers and politicians pore over exam results for evidence as to rising or falling educational standards.

This year's pass rates offer reassurance in two separate ways. Firstly, much to the relief of all those concerned, the new National 5 qualifications appear to have been introduced without the catastrophic outcome some had feared.

There have certainly been problems with the introduction of this replacement for the old Standard Grades. As it has progressed, staff and their unions were worried about whether there was enough time to implement the new system. The assessment process has been said by some to have introduced excessive amounts of coursework. Pupils and their parents were understandably concerned about being the guinea pigs in the first year of the new system.

But the pass rate for these qualifications, 81.1%, is similar to that of similar pupils under the old regime.

This is a very different system, aiming for different educational outcomes and using very different measures of success, so a direct like-for-like comparison is not possible.

It is clear, however, that nothing has gone drastically wrong - the new system has not seen results collapse, for example. Secondly the pass rate at Higher is, paradoxically encouraging, despite showing a drop in the percentage of pupils passing their exams.

After seven years of consecutive rises, some had started to question whether the figures could possibly be reliable. A year-on-year increase in Higher passes had begun to seem unrealistic, and some feared manipulation to ensure schools' records looked impressive and councils and politicians could point to the figures as evidence of their worth.

But steady and continuous improvement cannot be explained every year by improvements in teaching, neither is it likely that pupils are getting progressively cleverer. Each consecutive year of improved results was less plausible.

So a dip this year in results at both Higher and Advanced Higher level is a sign that the system is robust and healthy. It means we can be confident that it is a genuine measure of standards year on year. This does mean caution is advisable when critics attempt to use these figures for political ends. If examination results are reliable, then it is neither right nor fair to compare them with other countries where they may not be so trustworthy.

This was at the heart of the row which erupted in June, over factual changes to a controversial report on schools from Audit Scotland.

Pupils across the country will open their individual exam results today, and most will be pleased with the outcome. Scotland's education system can be quietly pleased too. But lessons should be learned about the new qualification after an implementation which was rushed, and sometimes chaotic.

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