Scottish Higher entrants continue to fall

Exam results season is upon us once again – a time of apprehension and excitement for many students as they find out whether their hard work has paid off.

As usual, those in Scotland are the first of the UK nations to find out how they fared as Higher results were released first last week.

After last year’s disappointing numbers for physics, the statistics from the Scottish Qualifications Authority for 2017 show that the numbers entering physics at Higher level have dropped once again, although by a smaller proportion.

In 2017, entrants for Higher physics totalled 8,955. This represents the lowest number of entrants since 2010, and a drop of 1.9% on 2016 levels.


Unlike in 2016, comparable subjects have all remained fairly stable, but still below 2015 levels. Chemistry and biology rose by 0.6% and 0.7% respectively, while maths fell by less than 0.1%. Across all subjects, the total number of entrants dropped by 1.5% from 2016.

However, in 2016 there had been a considerable drop in entries compared with 2015, so the number of students studying these subjects to Higher level is still below the level prior to the replacement of Standard Grades with National 4 and National 5 qualifications.


The 8,955 physics entrants in 2017 account for 4.6% of all entrants to Highers which is the same proportion of entrants as in 2016.

The chart above illustrates the proportion of Higher physics entrants compared to other subjects: physics has remained roughly in line with both biology and chemistry since 2002. In 2016, physics, biology and chemistry experienced a significant drop in entrants at Higher level, and a fall in the proportion of entrants compared to all Higher entrants. In 2017, the number of entrants was more stable across the three subjects but still below 2015 levels – both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of total entrants.

In 2017, biology entrants made up 3.9% of all entrants and chemistry entrants 5.2%. 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% in 2016 which rose slightly to 9.7% in 2017. The average proportion of entrants in Higher physics between 2001 and 2017 is 5.3%, compared to 5.2% in biology, 5.7% in chemistry and 11.4% in maths.

As students from the other UK nations receive their results, we’ll be analysing the picture for physics and the other sciences and comparing how Scotland fares in terms of physics entrants as a proportion of overall entrants.

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

Note also, however, 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.

Related posts


Florence Greatrix

Florence Greatrix

Florence is an IOP policy officer looking at issues relating to the UK leaving the EU. She came to the Institute from the RSC and has an MSc in oceanography from Southampton
Florence Greatrix

Comment via Facebook

Comment via Disqus


Comment via Google+