TIME-CONSUMING classroom assessments which pupils have to pass before being awarded Higher and National 5 qualifications are facing the axe as part of moves to cut teacher workload and stave off strike action in schools.

The Herald understands Scotland's exam body and teachers' leaders have reached an agreement in principle paving the way for the removal of the requirement for pupils to pass the so-called unit assessments - highlighted as a major source of workload and pupil stress.

While external exams and most coursework for Highers and National 5s are marked by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) unit assessments are dealt with by teachers - with pupils expected to pass all of them in order to achieve the qualification even though they don't carry a mark.

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The assessments were introduced to lessen the importance of external exams, to set short-term goals for pupils and build a series of benchmarked achievements into courses because of concerns some pupils, such as those from more deprived backgrounds, were being disadvantaged.

However, teachers argue the units are unnecessary because pupils are still required to pass the coursework and final exam. They also argue the resulting workload has led to a crisis in schools with staff swamped with paperwork and pupils spending too much time being assessed.

As a result, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) announced a programme of industrial action in May with the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association (SSTA) set to follow.

The breakthrough followed a meeting last week of the National Review Group on Qualifications and Assessment, which is chaired by the Scottish Government, at which the EIS put forward proposals for the unit assessments to be shelved.

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The paper called on the SQA to move the content of unit assessments deemed as being key to the integrity of qualifications into either coursework or the external exam. The EIS said that once that had been done unit assessments should no longer be a requirement of the overall qualification.

Sources said the agreement between the EIS and the SQA will look to cut the unit assessments in National 5 by the 2017/18 school year with further negotiations on when the requirement for Higher would be dropped.

However, the units are likely to remain as options for teachers to use as stand alone assessments suitable for some learners, such as adults returning to college.

The EIS said: "Implementation of these changes would mean that schools would still be free to use the current units... minimising any further changes to course content or structures.

"These changes would also bring about significant reduction with regards to the workload generated by SQA verification and the associated internal auditing approaches to assessment and recording.

"Whilst a number of other issues would remain to be discussed and resolved within the working group, the EIS believes that a resolution of these issues is more feasible if the workload concerns around unit assessments are addressed in the first instance."

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The breakthrough comes after John Swinney, the new Education Secretary, pledged to make tackling teacher workload his number one priority.

Earlier this year Mr Swinney called on the SQA to do more to address the impact qualifications were having in the classroom, but Dr Janet Brown, the organisation's chief executive, said going further would damage the integrity of National qualifications and "create risks to their secure delivery".

An SQA spokesman said: "SQA has engaged fully with the ministerial Assessment and National Qualifications Group and the stakeholders represented on it. In line with the commitment in the Scottish Government’s delivery plan, we will continue to discuss the future design and possible long-term modifications to National Courses.

“SQA remains committed to the continued implementation of the National Qualifications and to maintaining their integrity and credibility."