SCOTLAND’S education secretary has called for patience before seeing improvements in exam results after the pass rates in core Higher classes dropped significantly.

In some cases, Higher passes at grades A to C fell by almost 10 per cent.

The Scottish Government came under fire last night for a “snide and cynical” attempt to avoid scrutiny after releasing detailed analysis of the exam performance quietly at 8pm - six months on from initial calls.

Education Secretary John Swinney has claimed that the decline is down to “annual volatility” and has stressed that improvement will take place over a longer time-scale.

Speaking on Good Morning Scotland, he said: “I’ve not in any way avoided discussing the fall in the Higher pass rate. What I have asked, simply, is that we look at it all in its proper context.

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"Let us still remember that 75 per cent was the pass rate in the Highers examinations. That represents still a very, very strong performance by young people in Scotland. Yes, it’s a fall on the previous year, but it still represents a very strong performance by young people in Scotland.

“It takes time to strengthen performance within our education system.”

But Tory shadow education secretary Jamie Greene, also appearing on the programme, said the SNP has had plenty of time to improve standards.

He added: “It confirms what we already knew and that is there are some pass rate drops which are beyond the acceptability of annual fluctuations. It’s clear that he still doesn’t know why the pass rates are dropping.

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“Ten per cent cannot be acceptable to him, it’s certainly not acceptable to parents, pupils or teachers. There’s clearly a systemic problem here - this has been a slow decline over a number of years, it didn’t happen overnight. This isn’t annual fluctuation, there’s clearly something going wrong.”

Mr Greene also called for a formal explanation into the tumbling results and criticised Mr Sweeney for having “not a hint of acknowledgement that there is a problem”.

He added: “Until he does admit that, we won’t be able to get to the bottom of this.

“I want Mr Swinney and his civil servants to come to the Parliament and explain why he thinks the pass rates are dropping and what his government is going to do about it. His government have been in office for over a decade – time is of the essence.”

Liberal Democrats have called for Mr Swinney to explain the pass rate drop to Parliament.

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, Beatrice Wishart, said: “This report is truly dire. It shows exam performance declining dramatically, efforts to close the attainment gap stalling and teachers in need of much more support.

“This government has been in power for well over a decade and its management of the education system has set performance on troubling downward slide.

“John Swinney should come to Parliament and explain. This has to be the first order of business on Tuesday.”

Labour said Mr Swinney needs to "face up to the problems caused by years of mismanagement of education".

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s spokesperson for education, added: “Since taking power in 2007, over a decade ago, the SNP has presided over a continual decline in the quality of education in Scotland.  John Swinney has been in denial over the situation and the significant issues facing Scotland’s education system.  This analysis, sneaked out late at night,  shows that the problems are indeed real, and that the SNP government must finally face up to them.

“The report’s findings make the upcoming full review of Curriculum for Excellence, including broad general education (BGE) and the senior phase, absolutely crucial. Education was supposed to be the Government's top priority, and yet pupils are missing out on opportunities to study a greater breadth of subjects at school and we see a year on year decline in pupil performance."

Scottish Greens education spokesperson Ross Greer added: "The Education Secretary has questions to answer on both the attempt to sneak this out late at night and on the report's contents, which show the opposite of his claims that everything is fine with Scotland's exam results. There's nothing fine about a clear trend of falling Higher pass rates.

“The fact that the SNP hasn’t held a debate on education in over two years is embarrassing and, combined with publishing important information in this underhand fashion, certainly doesn’t suggest that they are comfortable with their record in charge of our schools.”