Published in the Education Guardian, August 6 2013
Their exam system may differ from the one in England, but Scottish students face the same anxious wait for their results. Jackie Kemp takes a closer look at Highers and university entrance north of the border
The new Scottish national curriculum will emphasis research and thinking skills
Today, across Scotland, young people will be whooping or groaning as the results of their endof - school exams, the Highers and Advanced Highers, are revealed. “The people who do really well will post them on Facebook,” says student Ellie Small, “and some of those who do really badly might post them for comedy value, but I don’t think I will be posting mine. I’m really nervous. The closer it gets, the more I feel I won’t have got what I need.”
Small, 17, took three Highers, in business, English and philosophy. She has a conditional offer to study event management at Edinburgh College and needs two Cs. “I found the Higher courses really hard. I started off taking five, but I dropped two so I could concentrate on getting good marks in three.”
Highers are taken at the end of a oneyear course, which makes them roughly equivalent to AS-levels. A Higher course involves a two-term syllabus followed by revision and several weeks of study leave when students can go into school on a voluntary basis, but otherwise are expected to self-study. “I did work hard and I went into school quite often,” says Small.
Despite the pressure, she enjoyed studying for her Highers. “I loved philosophy. I was allowed to be quite vocal about how I felt and why, and everyone in the class seemed genuinely interested in it.”
Susanna Collins, 17, will be on a family holiday when she gets her results by text today. She feels that the Scottish approach to the last two years of school – when students can sit either two sets of Highers or take specific subjects on to Advanced Higher level – has offered her more flexibility than she might have had in the English A-level system.
It has meant Collins has been able to change direction: at the start of fifth year, she was taking chemistry, biology, maths, English and art, and planning to apply for a science degree. “Over the year, I found the class I enjoyed going to the most was English. I decided I couldn’t see myself in a white coat working in a lab.”
Next year she will take English and chemistry to Advanced Higher, but she is also cramming an Advanced Higher in history into one year. “It will be hard, it will be a lot of work, but if I want to study English at university, an essay-based subject like history will help.”
If Collins gets all As at Higher level, she will apply to Oxbridge or a prestigious Scottish university, but she does not need to decide until later in the year.
Scotland’s top universities – such as Edinburgh and St Andrews – typically ask for four or five As and Bs at Higher level, achieved at one sitting in fifth year, for entry to popular courses such as history, law or medicine. Scottish university degrees are studied for over four years and, traditionally, students begin them at the age of 17. However, it is now the norm for most students to do a sixth year at school. For those who did not quite get what they wanted after fifth year, sixth year can be a second chance.
It is possible for students with A-levels or Advanced Highers to go straight into the second year of a Scottish university, but this is rare. Most students prefer to do the first or foundation year, when they can study modules outside of their major subject and settle into university life.
For Amadeus Brezhinski, the contents of the brown results envelope he received last year was something of a disappointment. Of the four Highers he sat, he got an A and two Bs but was upset to find an unexpected D in philosophy. He had been planning to apply to study a philosophy degree at Glasgow University.
“When I opened the envelope, it felt suffocating,” said Brezhinski. “I felt like my options were flying out of the window.” But his sixth year has been “a bit of a safety net”. He has taken Advanced Higher English and three more Highers, and has now decided to study English at university.
However, some of the Highers courses, said Brezhinski, felt “more like ticking boxes than a personal intellectual challenge or self-development”. This should be about to change: Scotland is redrafting its school-based qualifications around the new national curriculum, which shifts the emphasis away from testing specific knowledge and towards research and thinking skills. All the new Higher and Advanced Higher courses will contain a major element of student choice. The history Higher, for example, will require that students “are free to research any appropriate historical issue or question”.
Scottish education secretary Mike Russell said the changes are an attempt “to give pupils the knowledge and skills they need” and allow “teachers to use their creativity to inspire pupils’ learning”.