SCHOOLS are to be issued with fresh guidance amidst fears some pupils would leave school without any qualifications.

The Herald understands an expert group chaired by John Swinney, the Education Secretary, has agreed to issue the advice to prevent the unintended consequence of pupils leaving in S4 with nothing to show for their time in secondary school.

The Assessment and National Qualifications working group, which includes teaching unions, councils, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and Education Scotland, also hopes the move will clear up confusion over the purpose of qualifications introduced under the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

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Since National 4 and National 5 exams replaced Standard Grade in 2013 there has been uncertainty over the appropriate level for pupils while some parents and teachers do not value National 4 because it has no end of term exam.

While the proposed guidance is designed to protect pupils it attracted criticism from opposition parties who accused Mr Swinney of failing to get a grip of the school system since he took over the role last year.

Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservative Party, said: "This mess is symptomatic of the very muddled thinking that has characterised discussions within Education Scotland and SQA about Scotland's National qualifications.

"It has been obvious for some time that there are major issues with National 4 and National 5 exams, the most important of which is the failure of the system to cater for the best interests of least academic pupils.

"The current system is proving less effective in this respect than Standard Grade and it means that a sizeable number of pupils could leave school with no credible qualification."

Iain Gray, education spokesman for the Scottish Labour Party, added: "The Scottish Government 's mismanagement of new exams is destroying the longstanding principle of assessment for all in Scottish schools.

"The botched removal of unit assessments now means pupils who fail National 5 will be left with no fall-back and this reported new guidance looks like another panic measure to patch up yet another unintended consequence of education policies growing more shambolic by the day."

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However, the Scottish Government defended the move arguing that a key part of the CfE was ensuring that young people are presented 'appropriately' at the correct level of qualification, 'whether that be National 4 or National 5.'

A spokesman said: “The changes to the qualifications were announced following discussion with the Assessment and National Qualifications Group and with the Curriculum for Excellence Management Board.

“We are working with partners, including SQA and the teacher unions, to ensure that the changes will have the anticipated effect. A key part of this is ensuring that young people are presented appropriately at the correct level of qualification, whether that be National 4 or National 5."

The situation has arisen after Mr Swinney agreed in September last year to scrap a raft of classroom assessments that were part of National 5 following pressure from teaching unions.

The decision, which applies to the 2017/18 school year, was made to reduce spiralling teacher workload and lift the burden of assessment on pupils with more emphasis placed on the final exam.

The current problem has arisen because National 5 classroom assessments were also used to award pupils the lower level National 4 qualification if they failed the final National 5 exam.

That led to the practice of schools putting greater numbers of pupils forward for National 5 with the understanding they would always secure a National 4 as a fall-back as long as they passed the unit assessments.

The scrapping of internal assessments has meant that is no longer a possibility and the new guidance will seek to highlight the distinct nature and value of National 4 and National 5 qualifications and advise teachers of the importance of selecting the right level for pupils.

The working group will also be looking at ways to make National 4 more appealing, such as introducing an externally marked element, as well as making schools aware of other qualifications, such as vocational options.

Last week, the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA) wrote to Mr Swinney calling for a delay in the process while a detailed review was conducted of the impact of changes on all subjects.

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The call followed an SSTA survey where nearly two thirds of respondents said the Scottish Government’s high-pro?le decision to scrap unit assessments was going to increase workload and put more pressure on pupils. That is because of changes the SQA has made to coursework and examinations to compensate.