PUPILS will be allowed to sit their Standard and Higher grade exams from the age of 11 under radical plans to prevent Scotland’s brightest students stagnating in the classroom.
Education minister Peter Peacock is expected next month to sweep away the present rules which let pupils take their exams a year in advance, or earlier if they apply for permission from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).
Officials say that if gifted pupils are ready to take exams, and teachers agree, they should be allowed to go ahead.
The move is a response to concerns that many bright pupils are simply treading water in the early years of secondary school and could even be stagnating as they wait for exams.
Scottish Executive officials say it is part of a process whereby schools adapt to the individual progress of pupils, rather than imposing rigid timetables.
But critics fear the moves could be abused by ‘pushy’ parents keen to force their children to take exams early to gain a competitive edge.
The radical plan is expected to be unveiled by Peacock as part of a wider scheme to hand more power to individual headteachers to organise their curriculum as they see fit.
The current ‘Age and Stage’ regulations under which children can only take Standard Grades in S3 - typically 15 - and above, and their Highers in S4 and above are to be ditched.
Pupils at present can take both exams before that, but they must first obtain special permission from the SQA before so doing.
That requirement is also expected to be scrapped, with the ultimate decision being left to the school and the pupil’s family.
A Scottish Executive source said: "We believe we could introduce flexibility to allow the brightest pupils to take their exams early on if parents, pupils and teachers agree. It is about creating individual choice so pupils go at their pace."
The insider added: "The time to take an exam should be governed by their ability not the time they are at in school. The principle is that the education system should be tailored to meet the ability of the pupil."
Officials believe that if they allow gifted pupils to take exams earlier they will keep them motivated during their time at school. A pupil talented at maths could take his Standard and Higher early, then take on more subjects at a later date.
"If they are capable of passing more exams and that is what is going to keep them motivated, they should have the flexibility to do that," the source said.
"We want to close the opportunity gap, but that means that as well as improving the lot of people from disadvantaged communities we shouldn’t at the same time hold back those who are gifted. They should progress at their own pace." The new move by Peacock comes five years after the last time the age limit for exams was lowered by a year.
That move has triggered a steady growth in the number of pupils who are taking their exams at an earlier age.
In 2003, 1,687 pupils took Standards in S3, up from 482 in 2000. Similarly, 199 pupils took Highers in S4, up from 143 in 2000. A further 62 pupils last year applied to the SQA to take their Highers in S3, aged just 15.
Peacock’s move follows a six-month consultation over whether age limits on exams should be ditched.
In place of regulations, guidance is likely to be issued to schools to follow before reaching a decision.
Heads will be told that young pupils should not be entered for an excessive number of exams and that they should only be allowed to be fast-tracked if they are mature enough.
The scrapping of age limits for exams could eventually lead to headteachers simply adopting their own exam timeframe for all pupils at their schools.
In one pilot school in Moray, Keith Grammar, the first and second years have been condensed into a single year, so that pupils are taking their Standard Grades a year early. The idea is to give pupils an extra year to study for their Highers.
Experts last night gave a mixed response to the new moves. Parent groups are broadly in favour of giving schools more flexibility.
But David Eaglesham, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association said: "There will be children who are more than capable of doing this but you have to ask the question whether we want them to do it.
"Do we want to have graduates aged 16? Then you may get parents who say that their son is a genius and that they deserve earlier exams. This could be an issue."