MSPs are demanding assurances from the Scottish Government that pupils will not be penalised if their schools are unprepared for the new National exams they will sit next summer.
Around 65,000 pupils in S4 are currently studying for the Nationals. The first candidates are due to sit the exams – which are a replacement for the Standard Grades – in April.
However, there is growing disquiet that many classes are not ready for the assessments after it emerged that prelims, which are usually sat in November or December, have been delayed until a month before the final exam in some schools. Opposition MSPs said it was time for education secretary Mike Russell to provide a “cast iron assurance” that the first new school exams for a generation will take account of some schools being better prepared than others.
Some teachers have privately admitted that examiners will be forced to “massage” some pupils’ results to obscure the difficulties some schools have experienced in preparing for the Nationals.
The National 4 and National 5 were introduced at the start of the school year and replaced Standard Grades, which had been in place since the 1980s.
Last night, Scottish Labour’s education spokeswoman Kezia Dugdale said the Scottish Government had failed to listen to the warnings from teachers.
“The new examination system will naturally raise concerns about how they will run before they are introduced,” she said.
“What these concerns reflect is that, once again, Mike Russell and the SNP simply plough ahead with their reforms regardless of the warnings they receive or the concerns they hear.
“You can’t keep driving through reform where confidence doesn’t exist and where schools, pupils and teachers aren’t ready.”
Earlier this year, a survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country’s largest teaching union, found that more than half of teachers were “barely confident” of their school’s readiness to deliver the new exams. About 11 per cent of teachers who responded to the survey said they were “not confident at all” of their department’s readiness for the new exams.
The EIS had previously called for the introduction of the exams to be delayed by a year, a move already made by East Renfrewshire Council, home to some of the country’s best-performing state schools, but not adopted elsewhere. However, the idea of a delay was rejected by the Scottish Government.
Scottish Conservative young people spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “It is very clear that there are still deep-seated concerns amongst some parents, pupils and teachers about the readiness of schools for the new exams and therefore just how well prepared pupils will be.
“The SQA has worked hard to improve the process which will inform the public about the criteria which will be used for grading the new exams and how the qualitative measures will be put in place to assist employers, colleges and universities when they recruit young people.
“Nonetheless, some concerns remain so I think it is important that there is a cast iron assurance from Mike Russell that everything is properly in place for the new exams and that they will be rigorously assessed.”
Meanwhile, sources have suggested that Russell will this week move to ban councils from delaying the introduction of the new Higher exam.
Earlier this week, councils including Edinburgh and Glasgow said they were consulting with teachers over whether to delay the introduction of the new Higher exams because of the problems with the Nationals.
The new Higher, which is due to be introduced in the 2014-15 school year, is designed to complement the Nationals as part of the reform of the exam system under Curriculum for Excellence.
Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, said: “There is growing disquiet among teachers because the SQA is mucking about over the Nationals and there’s a lack of clarity. Things aren’t quite catastrophic, but there’s a great deal of worry out there.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Schools have made excellent progress in delivering the new qualifications and we are fully confident that this year’s diet will be delivered to the benefit of pupils across Scotland. Education Scotland, SQA and the Scottish Government have provided a wide range of support to help them.
“Over £5 million additional funding has also been provided to support teachers and pupils.”
Commenting on the Highers, she added: “We are confident that schools across Scotland are preparing for the new Highers in 2014-15 and will implement them in line with the national timetable for implementation as agreed over four years ago by the CfE management board, which includes representatives from local authorities, teaching unions and parents.