Scottish Higher entrants fail to reach new heights

Image: Shutterstock/
Image: Shutterstock/

This morning, students from Aberdeen to Yell (Scotland doesn’t have any towns beginning Z, surprisingly…) have been excitedly, or timidly, waking up to the sound of the postman delivering their Higher results for 2016. A moment of trepidation and jubilation for many students, this is the day that many will find out whether they have the right results to go to their university of choice – hopefully to study physics.

For us, the excitement this morning is looking at the situation for Higher physics entrants for 2016, provided by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. But the figures are a little disappointing.

In 2016, entrants for Higher physics are 9,131. You can see below how this compares to recent years.


As you can see, 2016 has seen the lowest number of entrants to Higher physics since 2010, representing a 6.6% drop compared to 2015. Higher physics entrants had risen year on year between 2007 and 2014. In 2015, entrants fell by 4.2%, but this followed the second greatest year-on-year increase in numbers since 1986 (a 6% rise in 2014) and a comparable fall in National 5 entrants the previous year (from which the Higher cohort would largely have been drawn). The 6.6% drop in entrants in 2016 however, follows a much smaller fall in National 5 entrants in 2015. Advanced Higher entrants in physics have also seen a drop in entrants of 5.1% in 2016, but this roughly mirrors the fall in Higher entrants in 2015.

However, comparable subjects have experienced even greater falls in Higher entrants – 24.3% in biology, 7.5% in chemistry and 13.4% in maths. Each subject has seen a far greater fall in entrants when compared with overall entrants, which fell by only 1%. Physics remains the seventh most popular subject at Higher level, and the fifth most popular Advanced Higher.

Given the fall in entrants in each subject has been greater than the overall fall in entrants, how has this affected the proportional number of entrants in each subject?


The 9,131 physics entrants in 2016 account for 4.6% of all entrants to Highers. The proportion of Higher physics entrants has, since 2001, been largely comparable to both chemistry and biology. In 2016, like physics, Higher biology and chemistry also experienced a fall in entrants, and a fall in the proportion of entrants compared to all Higher entrants. In 2016, biology entrants made up 3.8% of all entrants and chemistry entrants 5.1%. Mathematics has had a consistently higher proportion of entrants, from a high of 12.9% of all entrants in 2001 to a low of 9.5% of all entrants in 2016. The average proportion of entrants in Higher physics between 2001 and 2016 has been 5.4%, compared to 5.4% in biology, 5.7% in chemistry and 11.6% in maths.

It’s worth noting, too, that Highers have undergone a number of changes in the past 30 years, and, as such, there have been a number of years with multiple courses in the same subject. In 2015 for example, there were entrants for a Higher in physics, a Revised Higher in physics and a New Higher in physics. Figures used are totals, or based on totals, of entrants for that subject across all exams.

But how does Scotland look compared to other UK nations? Looking at A-level data from the Joint Council for Qualifications, we can compare Scottish Higher figures with comparable qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Doing so shows that Scotland has had marginally higher proportions of students going on to study physics at Higher level than students in other UK nations at A-level. The average proportion of physics entrants against all entrants at A-level between 2001 and 2015 in England was 3.8%, Wales 4.1% and Northern Ireland 4.6%. The figure for Scotland, as above, is 5.4%. (Adding in the 2016 figure doesn’t change this.) Figures for A-level entrants for 2016 should be available as results are released next week.

SQA figures on Highers will be updated in September, when breakdowns based on gender are released, and in December, when final statistics are confirmed. The IOP will be providing further analysis of Scottish Higher figures and wider UK education figures on our Data Centre.

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Daniel Lee

Daniel Lee

Dan is the IOP’s policy officer
Daniel Lee

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