Scots ‘second class’ in grades fight

A row between education's governing bodies in England and Scotland may mean Scottish pupils are losing out when competing for university places.

Experts believe English grade inflation is making comparisons between A levels and Scottish qualifications increasingly difficult, and the credit given to pupils who pass Advanced Highers in particular needs to be re-evaluated.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has asked for a benchmarking exercise for the Advanced Higher, but the Department forEducation and Skills (DfES) and Scottish Executive education department (SEED) cannot agree on who should fund the process.

According to the tariff recommended by UCAS, the Advanced Higher is given equivalent weight to the A level. A Higher is worth 60per cent of an A level – a value that has not changed in 25 years.

But only around one in 50 Scottish students get five As at Higher, compared to one in 30 who get three As at A level.

Many believe this is not because of weakness on the part of Scottish pupils, but simply because the Advanced Higher is harder. Oxford and Cambridge universities have both confirmed that they are ignoring the UCAS guidance and accepting students in some cases who have lesser grades at Advanced Higher over English applicants with three A-grade A levels. Oxford and Cambridge now ask for AAB at Advanced Higher orAA compared to AAA at A level. Most other universities say they follow the UCAS guidelines.

UCAS itself is pushing for a general review of the points awarded to Scottish qualifications and for a “benchmark testing” of the Advanced Higher. Since its introduction in 2001, the qualification has not been formally assessed.

UCAS director Jill Johnson says the suggestion that it be viewed as the equivalent of an A level came from Scotland, but that it was little better than a guesstimate, because a proposal by the service to have the exam evaluated at a cost of GBP15,000 was knocked back by the Scottish Executive.

Johnson explains: “They said: ‘Why should we pay for this? Surely the department of education in Westminster should make a contribution?'” She says this is a legitimate point, but DfES believes the timing is wrong, with possible changes to the A level in the pipeline. However, the Advanced Higher is now four years old and Johnson says she feels it needs
to be benchmarked: “I would not like our exam tariff to discriminate against anyone.”

SNP education spokeswoman Fiona Hyslop says it is remarkable that the executive has not funded the review. She adds:

“It seems a small price to pay to ensure that smart, successful Scots are getting the recognition they deserve for the qualifications they have worked so hard for.

“The executive should be investing in making sure that Scottish qualifications are properly recognised both north and south of the border. Every year that passes, more young people’s chances and opportunities may suffer.”

She adds: “The tariff doesn’t seem to have taken account of the fact that Scottish qualification has remained more robust. You could argue that Scots students have always had to jump through extra hoops to get places at universities in England, but that is increasingly becoming the case with grade inflation.”

It used to be that after the age of 16, students in England and Scotland studied for five years to gain a degree, with either the four-year Scottish degree course and the one-yearHigher or the two year A level plus three year English degree. However, Johnson explains: “It now seems to be becoming six in Scotland, as more and more young people seem to stay on postHighers and do Advanced Highers.”

Comparing Highers with A levels is similar to comparing apples and pears, she says, but a necessary evil to help universities evaluate Scots students: “In England, students tend to do four subjects now at AS level, but universities don’t take account of that. From the English side we hear that the tariff is unfair because it only gives the AS levels 50per cent
of an A level.”

At the heart of the issue is the disparity between the grades obtained by A-level students and those sitting Advanced Higher in traditional subjects. An analysis of the 2005 results (see table) shows that, on the surface, figures forEnglish pupils achieving A passes in A levels and Scots getting that grade in Advanced Highers are similar.

But while in England the number of A passes is low for subjects such as general studies, sports studies and media studies, which bring down the average, it appears much easier to obtain an A grade pass in England in the 10 key traditional subjects likely to be studied by young people now competing directly for university places in both countries.

In English, where an A is often vital to do popular arts courses at good universities, 20per cent attained the top grade at A level, compared to 9per cent at Advanced Higher. In maths, the percentage getting an A is also nearly double for the English qualification.

In just two of the main traditional subjects, history and physics, do Advanced Higher students score more As.

In these 10 traditional subjects, which will be studied by the vast majority of candidates vying for places at the top universities, the average A pass rate forA levels is 27per cent, compared to 20.8per cent for Advanced Highers.

Some private schools in Scotland run both A-level and Higher courses, particularly those that traditionally send a high proportion of pupils to English universities. But this can give pupils a difficult choice as to which exam course to pursue.

Judith McClure, head of one of Scotland’s leading independent school for girls, St George’s in Edinburgh, offers both qualifications. She says: “Advanced Higher is a very, very challenging qualification. It is extremely tough to get an A. But there is nothing wrong with that as long as people understand it is going to be tough. Exams should stretch.”

The school secured a rate of 44.1per cent A passes in Advanced Highers this year, compared to 52.3per cent in A levels.

“That’s to do with the nature of the exam, ” says McClure. “It’s nothing to do with teaching methods or the girls’ hard work. We select the qualifications not on the basis that it is slightly easier to get an A in one than in the other, but the girls choose them because of the courses.

Education is about more than trying to amass a lot of As to get into university.”

She adds that half of the girls go to English universities, and getting recognition for Highers can be an issue. “Sometimes we have to shine the light in their eyes and point out the relative difficulty, but most admission offices understand that the Scottish qualifications are very robust, ” McClure says. “They are internationally respected because of that.”

Gareth Edwards, principal of George Watson’s College, Edinburgh, believes Scotland should capitalise on the strength of the Advanced Higher and promote it abroad.

“I would suggest that the SQA should market the Higher and Advanced Higher vigorously, both internationally and south of the border, ” he says. “Perhaps some English schools may be interested in offering the Advanced Higher if there are concerns there about the rigor of the A level. The Scottish qualification seems to be maintaining the differentiation.”

The executive refused to comment, referring Herald Society to the SQA, whose spokeswoman says: “The SQA and the executive meet with UCAS on a regular basis regarding the UCAS tariff and are keen that any review is undertaken in a UK context. The SQA has initiated workwith the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to benchmark our qualifications against those in the rest of the UK, in preparation for a review of the
tariff ratings.”

Making the grade

Candidates receiving an A grade:
A level/Advanced Higher

biology – 23per cent/16.5per cent
chemistry – 29.5per cent/11per cent
economics – 31per cent/24per cent
English – 20per cent/9per cent
French – 33per cent/22.5per cent
geography – 24per cent/13per cent
German – 36per cent/29per cent
mathematics – 41per cent/23per cent S

The Scottish Herald
20th Septemberl 2005