TENS of thousands of pupils across Scotland will be celebrating today as they receive their exam results.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) revealed that record numbers of candidates have been awarded a Higher with 156,000 passes this year, up more than five per cent on 2014.

A total of 107,295 pupils sat new Highers, which were introduced as part of the wider Curriculum for Excellence reforms, while a further 92,555 pupils sat the existing Highers. Pass rates were 79.2 per cent and 76.7 per cent respectively.

Overall, almost 143,000 students will receive their exam results for a range of qualifications including National 4, National 5 and Advanced Highers.

However, despite the positive trend at Higher there was concern after it emerged that the overall number of pupils sitting exams dropped by nearly 19,000 - or 2.6 per cent - in 2015.

The decline is because fewer pupils are sitting exams under the move from Standard Grades to the new National 4 and National 5 qualifications.

Previously, pupils sat Standard Grades over two years, but the new qualifications are designed to be taken in one year which means schools are sometimes unable to timetable more than six subjects.

Angela Constance, the Education Secretary, said the decline was expected under the new system.

She said: "The decline in the number of candidates and entries is due to a dip in the school roll, but also changing pathways for pupils.

"Although we are still in a transition phase to the new qualifications I do not think pupils are missing out.

"The focus is on the quality of the learning and teaching in a broad general education and then for young people to be selecting subject choices and exams at a level that is appropriate."

There was also concern over the impact of the dual running of new and old Highers after some schools asked for a delay because they did not feel ready.

The figures from the SQA show that, while overall pass rates are broadly similar between old and new Highers, the proportion of pupils achieving A grades is markedly different.

The most high profile example is the controversial new maths Higher, but the difference is replicated in other subjects.

For example, 30 per cent of candidates taking the old physics Higher achieved an A grade compared to less than 24 per cent in the new Higher. More than 30 per cent of candidates taking the former chemistry Higher achieved an A grade compared to just 22 per cent for the new Higher. In Higher English, however, candidates who took the new exam were more likely to achieve better grades.

A Scottish Government spokesman said comparing pass rates between the new and the existing Highers was "extremely complex" because each exam

would have been studied by a different group of learners.

He said: "All of SQA’s processes, involving thousands of teachers in the setting and marking of exams, are designed to ensure that standards are consistent from year to year."

A spokesman for the SQA added: "The new Highers have been designed to reflect the purposes and principles of Curriculum for Excellence, and involve the assessment of different skills and knowledge. In some subjects, the content of the course and assessment methods will differ between the new and existing Higher."

Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said it was encouraging to see record numbers of exams passed.

But he added: "There are some worries here, though, with pass rates at many levels falling slightly after a drop in Higher pass rates last year. The gap in attainment between the old and new Highers will raise questions too."

Liz Smith, young people spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservative Party, said: "The Scottish Government must not lose sight of the fact there is still a significant attainment gap between pupils from poorer and wealthier backgrounds."

Liam McArthur, education spokesman for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said the results had been achieved "despite the government’s approach to curriculum reform, not because of it".

And Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland teaching union, added: "The past few years have been a challenging time for Scottish education, with a major programme of curricular change and the introduction of new qualifications during a time of significant budgetary pressure."