WHILE the vast majority of their contemporaries across Scotland have spent the last year fretting over their National 5 qualifications pupils from a Glasgow secondary school have been focusing on their Highers instead.

Under a radical curriculum model adopted by Hillhead High School, in the west end of Glasgow, pupils capable of studying Highers start them a year early, sit them over two years instead of one and bypass National 5s altogether.

Karen McAlaney, the school's headteacher, said the model had been introduced to reduce the burden of assessment on pupils and create more time for deeper learning - two key founding principles of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

She said: "In 2008, Hillhead was a successful school, but staying on rates and attainment were not as high as they should have been, especially for pupils from the most deprived areas.

"There were concerns about attendance and destinations for some and we also wanted to increase the number and quality of exam passes and make space for wider achievements.

"The strengths of the model are that it reduces duplication of work. Previously, pupils completing some National 5s would repeat pretty similar assessments in S5 for Higher. The time is better spent developing skills and understanding."

The early signs are promising. Although results at Higher have fluctuated from year to year there has been a significant overall increase in the proportion of pupils achieving Highers since 2013, when the model was introduced.

Nearly 70 per cent of school-leavers secured at least one Higher this year compared to 48 per cent six years ago and over the same period pupils achieving five or more Highers has risen from 15 per cent to 31 per cent.

The school's approach puts an interesting spin on the current debate over whether CfE has led to a restriction in subject choice rather than the greater breadth that was promised.

There has been much wringing of hands over a reduction in the number of National 5 qualifications on offer in many schools, but the example of Hillhead demonstrates an approach which does just that, but makes sense for those pupils who will be judged primarily on their Highers.

The current debate centres on the fact that under previous curriculum models pupils would routinely sit eight or nine Standard Grades in S4 before identifying the five Highers they would take in S5.

As CfE was being designed, one of the questions posed was whether cramming for a repetitive cycle of examinations was a worthwhile pursuit. Did it prepare pupils with the skills required for a rapidly changing world and was it something pupils found meaningful, relevant or even enjoyable?

As a result, the so-called Broad General Education (BGE) was designed for the first three years of secondary school, essentially delaying the start of study for formal qualifications from S3 to S4, but allowing pupils to develop a range of additional skills in a less pressured environment.

What that has meant in practice for many schools is that pupils only have one year to study the National 4 and National 5 qualifications that replaced Standard Grade, leading to a reduction in the overall number of subjects.

The Scottish Parliament's education committee is currently holding an inquiry into the issue and has received evidence that appears to show a significantly reduced choice, at least of traditional subjects.

Figures from the Reform Scotland think tank show a majority of schools now only offer six subjects in the fourth year of secondary school. Others schools, with a different interpretation of the curriculum, are still offering eight or nine, although this usually means choosing subjects earlier than CfE envisaged.

Chris Deerin, director of Reform Scotland, said: "We are in real danger of opening up a new type of attainment gap in Scotland - one where children who are allowed to sit eight or nine National 4s or 5s will have a distinct advantage over those restricted to five or six."

The Royal Society of Edinburgh is also concerned, arguing the impact of reduced subject choice is felt most keenly by learners who leave school at S4 with fewer qualifications than previously might have been the case, typically those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

An RSE paper on subject choice added: "Reduced course choice at S4 can also constrain learners' options in S5 and S6 since it will be more difficult to progress to Higher level without the pre-requisite learning at National 5 level."

With English and mathematics seen as essential, the narrowing means particular subjects are now in decline in S4. Research by Professor Jim Scott, from Dundee University, identified these as German, French, art, drama, music, computing studies and some sciences.

The Scottish Association of Geography Teachers is deeply troubled by the trend saying widespread narrowing of the curriculum has reduced choice for individual pupils "thus limiting their career opportunities too soon and restricting the opportunity to change career pathways further into the senior school".

However, John Swinney, the Education Secretary, argues in an interview in the Herald tomorrow that looking at one particular moment in the senior school experience is a mistake because CfE allows pupils to secure qualifications and other skills and achievements in a more flexible way.

"Young people are remaining engaged with education and participating in education for longer than was the case when I was at school which is a very significant change. Wherever I go I don't see a narrowing of choice in Scottish education. I see a blossoming of choice," he said.

Mr Swinney also said he was relaxed about the different curriculum models adopted by schools, with the study of six subjects just as valid as nine, as long as the school had the support of pupils and parents.

Nonetheless, curriculum and inspection body Education Scotland has concerns about schools which still have a focus on a traditional qualifications structure. And they have gone further than most in suggesting that some subjects may not be relevant to some pupils.

Gayle Gorman, Scotland's Chief Inspector of Education, said: "The aim ... was to change the focus of study in the senior phase from the model that many teachers, parents and others will be familiar with.

"That may well mean young people taking fewer qualifications, particularly at some levels ... and that the curriculum design may look different from school to school.

"We are still seeing some schools where the focus is on a one year qualifications ladder, with a drive to the next batch of National 4, National 5, Higher or Advanced Highers, and too often in the traditional subjects that were studied by those of previous generations, but may not always be the best fit now within a 21st century skillset.

"Young people, preparing for a very different world of work than their parents or teachers, are telling us that there is still too much focus being placed on traditional qualifications at the expense of more innovative pathways."

The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) teaching union believes the structures in secondary are mostly unchanged, despite the introduction of CfE.

An EIS statement said: "While the qualifications themselves have changed, the ways in which young people undertake them much too closely resemble the experiences of senior students a decade and a half ago.

"Indeed, it could be argued the current arrangement is poorer as the compression of qualifications into one year rather than two has required a reduction in the number of subjects chosen and also a significant time pressure in delivering these courses in a single year."

Parents are also concerned. Eileen Prior, executive director of parent body Connect, said they were aware of schools where pupils still chose subjects at the end of second year and began work on their National qualifications in third year.

She said: "We are still pushing many youngsters through National 5 when they could be going straight to Higher. The flexibility of CfE in relation to different pathways rather than going through the assessments associated with National 4 and National 5 has not been embraced across the board."

And Joanna Murphy, chairwoman of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, urged schools to embrace the idea of flexibility.

She said: "More and more of our young people are staying on for the full three years so the focus should be on the qualifications that they leave with, not the order in which they sit them.

"There is no point in creating a mental health crisis in our young people, which we hear is happening, by making them just sit and learn things."

Resolving the tension between specialists who see the quality and longevity of their subjects underpinned by formal qualifications in S4 and beyond and those who argue for less pressure and more alternative choices is not easy.

Mark Priestley, professor of education at Stirling University, believes a review of CfE is important to try and establish some fundamental principles about what schools should deliver.

He said: "Fundamentally, we need to consider the worth of qualifications. The system as it currently stands tends to encourage an approach which is about passing exams rather than the state of being educated. Both are important, but if we over-focus on qualifications then we are selling young people short.

"The controversy about the narrowing of subjects has been largely determined by what people think education should be, based on the way it used to be. At some stage we are going to have to review CfE to determine what schools are actually for."

*See tomorrow's Herald for the full interview with John Swinney.