Educational attainment at age 16

Graphs on this page:

Supporting information:

Key points

  • Standard Grade achievement in 2009/10 was higher than that of a decade ago for both pupils on average (up by 10%, to an average tariff score of 211 compared with 194 a decade ago) and for pupils in the bottom fifth (up by 15%, to 62 compared with 54 a decade ago).
  • For the pupils in the bottom fifth, all of the increase has occurred in in the last two years (i.e. since 2007/08).
  • Average standard grade attainment for pupils in deprived schools is less than that for pupils on average, but not by much: an average of 150 for pupils in the fifth of schools with the highest proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals compared to an average of 180 for all pupils.
  • Just over half of pupils leaving school have obtained no Highers, similar to a decade ago ((again, it remains to be seen whether the fall in the latest year – 2008/09 – is the start of a falling trend).  By contrast, the proportion gaining Standard Grades at the highest levels (levels 1 or 2) but still leaving school has risen steadily, from 20% in 1998/99 to 27% in 2008/09.
  • 18-19 year-olds from manual backgrounds are much more likely to lack any qualifications higher than Standard Grades.  For example, more than half of those from routine backgrounds lack any higher qualifications compared with around one in ten of those from higher managerial/professional backgrounds.
  • Concerns about the performance at the lower end of the educational spectrum is highlighted by Scotland’s relatively high level of illiteracy compared to other developed countries.  In 1997, OECD research suggested that around 20% of Scots are at the lowest literacy level and that a further 30% might find their skills inadequate to meet the demands of a ‘knowledge society’. 1
  • Research suggests that the inequality in educational outcomes between social classes is worsened by the concentration of pupils from lower socio-economic classes in particular schools. 2
  • Research conducted on the level of attainment on entry to Primary 1 in Aberdeen in 1999 found that levels of literacy and numeracy were already notably lower amongst pupils from areas of multiple deprivation and that progress in literacy over the course of the first year was similarly less marked among pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. 3
  • The importance of qualifications is increasing, with a greater proportion of jobs requiring a broader range and higher levels of skill than ever.  In 1997, 69% of jobs in the UK required at least basic qualifications compared with 62% in the mid 1980s. 4

Definitions and data sources

The first graph shows the standard level tariff scores of the weakest performing fifth of pupils compared to the average, since educational performance of the least qualified pupils is best looked at both in terms of how that performance itself is changing and how it compares with the change in the average performance of all pupils.  Progress is being made on this indicator when the score for the lowest fifth is rising faster than the score for the average.

Tariff scores are calculated by converting the levels that pupils achieve in their Standard Grade and other national qualification exams into points.  Points can range from as high as 120 for an A at advanced higher, though this is very rare at age 16, to 38 for a Standard Grade 1 (roughly equivalent to a GCSE ‘A’ in England and Wales), 11 for a Standard Grade 5 (the first ‘low grade’) and 3 for a Standard Grade 7 (the lowest).

The second graph shows how average standard level tariff scores for pupils in the fifth of schools with the highest proportion of their pupils eligible for free school meals (a proxy for level of deprivation) compare with the scores for all pupils.

The third graph shows the qualification level for those leaving school with no more than Standard Grades and so provides a more detailed look at educational performance for those pupils who do not go on to obtain Highers (around half of all pupils).  This is a larger proportion of the population than the indicators are usually concerned with, but such concern is justified by the relatively high risk of unemployment and low pay faced by those with no more than Standard Grades. The data shows those with: no Standard Grades (SGs); with SG 5 or 6 (low grades); with SG 3 or 4 (middle grades) and with SG 1 or 2 (high grades).  This also provides an insight into why the tariff scores are changing as they are.

The data source for the first three graphs is the Scottish Government (the data is not publicly available).  The data is for publicly funded schools only (i.e. not independent schools).  Pupils based in special schools are excluded but pupils with special educational needs in mainstream classes are included.  The analysis includes attainment in both Standard Grades and equivalent courses (i.e. Access 3 clusters and Intermediate courses) and other national qualifications but does not include pupils’ achievements in individual National Qualifications units, vocational courses or non-SQA accredited courses.  Note that around half of the pupils will be aged 16 at the end of S4 whilst the other half will be 15.

The fourth graph shows the proportion of 18-19 year-olds in 2005 who did not have any qualifications above Standard Grades, with the data broken down by parental social class.

The data source for the fourth graph is a once-off Scottish Government publication entitled Scotland’s young people: findings from the Scottish School Leavers Survey.

Overall adequacy of the indicator: high.  Qualifications data is collected by the Scottish Government Education Department and is based on data from all schools.

1. Macrae, C. Literacy and community education, Scottish Government, 1998. 
2. Croxford, L., Inequality in attainment at age 16: a “home international” comparison, CES Briefing No. 19, Centre for educational Sociology, University of Edinburgh, 2000, 
3. Croxford, L., Inequality in the first year of primary school, CES Briefing Paper No.16, Centre For educational Sociology, University of Edinburgh, 1999. 
4. Green, F., Ashton, D., Burchell, B., Felstead, A. and Davies, B., ‘Are British workers getting more skilled?’ in Borghans, L. and Grip, A., (eds.) The over-educated worker? The economics of skill utilisation, Edward Elgar, 2000.