Reform Scotland said it uncovered an “inequality of opportunity” for youngsters taking National 4 and 5s, which replaced standard grade exams in 2014. Freedom of Information requests to councils revealed that while some pupils are allowed to sit eight exams in S4, others, regardless of their ability, are limited to just five depending on the school.
The think-tank said it was “ironic and disappointing” that Curriculum for Excellence reforms brought in to broaden pupils’ education were in fact narrowing it and placing some young people at a disadvantage.
Keir Bloomer, a member of the Reform Scotland advisory board and chairman of the Commission on School Reform, said: “Our research shows that inequality of opportunity is now built into our examination system, not by the SQA [Scottish Qualifications Authority] but by decisions made mainly at council level. This is an unintended consequence of the way Curriculum for Excellence is being interpreted.”
The research found while some local authorities impose a blanket decision on the maximum number of exams, others allow individual schools to decide.
Among the schools where only five National 4 and 5s can be studied are Torry Academy in Aberdeen, Braes High School in Falkirk, Bell Baxter High School in Fife and Elgin High School in Moray.
Mr Bloomer, a former director of education at Clackmannanshire Council, added: “The intention was to extend the broader education provided in S1 and S2 into S3, with students beginning their examination courses in S4 only.
“Decisions to reduce the number of subjects a student may sit seem to have been based on a crude calculation of the number of hours of study available in S4. However, this is effectively saying that nothing studied in earlier years counts towards the knowledge of the subject required for the exams. Curriculum for Excellence had the admirable aim of broadening our children’s education, but in this case it is narrowing it.
“This is not an issue of the preferences or ability of the student. Instead, it is a lottery based on the school a young person attends.
“The result is that a very able student at one school could emerge with fewer qualifications than a similarly able student at a different school.”
Scottish Conservative young people spokeswoman Liz Smith accused the SNP of “turning a blind eye” to inequalities in the exam system.
She said: “This has major implications for college and university entrance and so it is little wonder that so many parents are concerned about what is happening.”
Scottish Labour opportunity spokesman Iain Gray said: “This is a classic example of SNP complacency on education. Labour has raised the unintended consequences of the new national exams repeatedly,using evidence gathered by educationalist Jim Scott. He has demonstrated over two years that the curriculum is narrowing.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, Scotland’s largest teaching union, said the issue was already under consideration by the National Qualifications Review group.
A spokesman for council body Cosla said: “There is no inequality of opportunity in terms of presentation for these exams and the decisions taken by councils and their schools are rightly and properly based on a range of education-related factors.”