PRESSURE from parents and not financial constraints is behind claims Scotland's new exams appeals system is unfair, headteachers have warned.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland (SLS), which represents secondary headteachers, said the new process - where schools are charged a fee if an appeal is unsuccessful - was actually much fairer than the previous one.

His intervention follows new figures which show appeals from comprehensive schools have fallen by more than 55,000 since the new system was introduced by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) last summer - a decline of 77 per cent.

Over the same period appeals from private schools have fallen by just 36 per cent with numbers dropping by 1,500 prompting accusations the independent sector had an unfair advantage.

Kezia Dugdale, deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, highlighted the difference at First Minister's Questions in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday blaming the SNP Government.

She said: "The reality is that parents of private school pupils can put their hands in their pockets to give their kids a second chance, but state school parents can't do the same.

"The First Minister might not want to admit it, but the reality is that the SNP's appeals charges mean the system now favours private school pupils more than ever before. That's not right."

However, Mr Cunningham said the very significant decline was in line with expectations and described the issue of fees as a "bit of a red herring".

He said: "This is not an issue about money because it is highly unlikely that any pupil with genuine grounds for an appeal was refused one because the school or local authority could not afford it.

"The appeals system is much fairer now because the idea that you can appeal an exam result on the basis that a pupil had a bad day no longer exists.

"I believe that at the heart of this issue is pressure from middle class parents in the private sector as well as state schools in leafy suburbs who are highly engaged with their children's education and very focussed on how well they perform in exams."

Mr Cunningham called for the SQA and the Scottish Government to assess the decline to see whether schools in poorer areas were less likely to appeal genuine cases than those in middle class areas.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) teaching union added: "The main factor in any decision to appeal must always be a genuine belief, based on the professional judgement of teachers, that there is a strong chance of the appeal being successful.

"The issue of the potential cost of the appeal, including how this cost will be met, should never be a factor in the decision making process.

"All pupils should have an equal chance to potentially lodge an appeal, and teachers should be free to consider each request for an appeal to be submitted free of external pressure from any source."

The new system was introduced after widespread concern over the number of speculative appeals. Too many schools were appealing pupils' marks without sufficient evidence to suggest they had underperformed and the SQA had to bear the cost of £750,000 a year.

As a result, the system was tightened up to ensure candidates could only appeal successfully if a mistake had been made marking their paper.

New costs were also introduced ranging from £10 to check if marks have been added up correctly to £39.75 for a full review of marking - although there is no charge if a mistake has been made by the SQA.

A Scottish Government spokesman insisted no pupil was at a disadvantage regardless of whether they went to a state or a private school. He said: "It is clear that the most recent success rate of appeals from state school pupils, 25.90 per cent, is higher than those of private schools, 24.12 per cent."

A spokesman for the SQA said the changes had been introduced following an extensive consultation across the Scottish education system and were designed to increase fairness.