Scottish Highers: pass rate falls again

Three-quarters of school leavers accepted into first choice of university

August 8, 2023
Source: iStock

The pass rate for school pupils in Scotland has fallen for the third successive year from the “generous” grades of the Covid-19 era, but remains above pre-pandemic levels.

Separate figures show that nearly three-quarters of Scottish students have been accepted by their first choice of university after a significant drop in the number of applicants.

Statistics from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) show that 77.1 per cent of Higher pupils achieved an A, B or C in 2023 – down from 78.1 per cent last year, and the peak of 89.3 per cent in 2020, but above the rate of 74.8 per cent in 2019.

Similarly, 79.8 per cent of entrants passed Advanced Highers this year – down from 81.3 per cent in 2022, and 93.1 per cent in 2020, but slightly above 79.4 per cent in the last pre-pandemic year.

SQA said it used a “sensitive approach” to awarding grades this year, recognising that learning and teaching are still recovering from the pandemic, although it was different to the “generous approach” applied to awarding for the first year of the return to exams in 2022.

The results might concern young people in the rest of the UK awaiting their results next week, which experts have already dubbed the “unluckiest generation of all” – having had so much schooling affected by Covid-19 but missing out on higher grades.

“This year does not mark a return to normal for learners and educators,” said Fiona Robertson, SQA’s chief executive and Scotland’s chief examining officer.

“But it marks another significant and positive step on the path back to normal awarding, following the years of disruption to learning and teaching caused by the pandemic.”

Separate statistics released by the admissions service Ucas show that 72 per cent of Scottish applicants aged 19 and under gained a place at their first-choice university in 2023 – up from 69 per cent last year and 65 per cent in 2019.

In total, a record 30,050 Scottish students have been accepted, compared with 30,490 in 2022 and 28,750 in 2019.

But the total number of applicants fell by 7 per cent year-on-year, largely fuelled by declining numbers of applications from students aged 21 and over.

Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said it was typical to see a fall in mature applicant numbers when employment rates are high. 

“Today’s figures show that demand for going to university or college is still healthy and much higher than pre-pandemic levels,” she said.

“Students who have applied have been more likely to secure a place which demonstrates how the admissions system is continuing to deliver for students as they make the next memorable step on their higher education journey.”

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