The proportion of Scottish school leavers securing at least one pass at Higher or equivalent has fallen in the vast majority of council areas, sparking warnings that decades-long progress in improving attainment has “stalled”.

Analysis of data covering the 10-year period to 2018/19 suggests the percentage of school leavers with at least one pass at Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework level 6 or better – which includes Highers and typically provides the standard for progression to university – has been flatlining since around 2015.

There is also a gulf in performance between some local authorities.

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, said the trend indicated deficiencies in Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and an inadequate focus on core, subject-specific skills such as multiplication and grammar.

“You can see the percentage of school leavers with at least one Higher pass or equivalent increasing strongly between 2009/10 and 2015/16, and then it seems to plateau,” he said.

“The plateau we’re now seeing in the data can be connected to the declines in numeracy and literacy scores which had been registered in primary schools in the last part of the first decade of this century.

“The fact we see [the plateau] emerge around 2015 suggests to me that the explanation does not lie in the National 5 and Higher tests. It suggests there’s a deeper, background reason. And it suggests that this plateau is due to fundamental changes to teaching and learning in primary school, and the early part of secondary school, under Curriculum for Excellence.”

His warning comes amid concern over Scotland’s sliding scores in international measurements of performance in maths and science – and as the OECD continues work on a review of CfE which is due to publish later this year.

Data released alongside the Scottish Government’s 2021 National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan shows that, between 2009/10 and 2015/16, the percentage of school leavers getting at least one pass at SCQF level 6 or better rose strongly from 50.4 per cent to 61.7%.

However, since then the national figure has plateaued, decreasing between 2017/18 and 2018/19 from 62.2% to 60.5%.

Data from 2019/2020 was not included due to the impact of Covid-19.

HeraldScotland: Professor Lindsay Paterson is concerned about recent exam result trends.Professor Lindsay Paterson is concerned about recent exam result trends.

Only seven of Scotland’s 32 local authorities recorded rises between 2017/18 and 2018/19, although 2018/19 statistics for the Orkney Islands were not available.

Pass rates in many council areas have been on a downward trend since 2015.

Aberdeen City enjoyed a 12.9% jump between 2009/10 and 2015/16.

But the figure drifted lower in subsequent years, slumping from 59.1% to 54.2% between 2017/18 and 2018/19.

The trajectory was similar in West Lothian, where the percentage of youngsters leaving school with at least one pass at level 6 or better rose from 47.7% to 62.1% before dropping from 61.3% to 58.5%.

Schools in neighbouring Midlothian suffered a plunge of nearly eight percentage points between 2017/18 and 2018/19 – from 58% to 50.3%.

Top-performing East Renfrewshire recorded a 2018/19 pass rate of 84.5%.

“The number of students getting at least one Higher or equivalent had been increasing since the early 1950s,” said Prof Paterson.

“And then it stopped going up in 2015 – and that’s right across the board geographically and right across the board in terms of subjects. It’s 65 years of progress which has stalled, and that suggests to me that the explanation has to do with something quite fundamental.”

He went on: “CfE, generally, has never been adequately evidenced due to the lack of baseline data but one of the things that is often said about it is that there’s a lack of attention to knowledge – too much focus on ad hoc skills and crosscurricular themes or activities such as project work, and not enough on fundamental, subject-specific skills such as multiplication and grammar.

“CfE started operating officially in schools in 2010 and the question has to be whether CfE is an adequate basis for developing the kind of disciplinary, subject-specific knowledge and skills that the Higher courses, and university courses, require.

“The trend we’re now seeing in Higher pass rates would suggest that CfE is not providing this basis.”

Prof Paterson also said he was not confident that the OECD’s review of the curriculum, which is scheduled for publication in June, would bring about the necessary improvements.

“I am not optimistic [it]… will recommend changes to the curriculum that would restore the focus on subject-specific knowledge and skills,” he added.

“It refuses to take evidence from people who have not been approved by the Scottish Government, and the OECD has so far not been critical of CfE.”

A Government spokesman said: “Curriculum for Excellence ensures children and young people have more options in their education and that their wider achievements and skills are recognised alongside qualifications.

“Young people can choose from a much broader range of pathways than before.

“Over 60 per cent (60.5%) of school leavers attained one pass or more at SCQF Level 6 in 2018/19, up by 10 percentage points from the level in 2009/10 (50.4%), when Curriculum for Excellence was first implemented.

“We commissioned the OECD to undertake an independent review of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence to help us better understand how the curriculum is being designed and implemented in schools and to identify areas for improvement across the country.”

The spokesman added: “Closing the poverty-related attainment gap remains the defining mission of this government and our focus on equity and excellence continues.

“That is why we are investing £182 million through the Attainment Scotland Fund this year, with a commitment to extend the programme into next year, including over £127m in Pupil Equity Funding.

“We are also investing £25m to support digital inclusion amongst disadvantaged children and young people.”