By Alison Payne, Research Director at Reform Scotland

IF the Scottish Government had sought to create a new set of qualifications to be sat in S4 and announced at its inception that as a result, the most able pupils in S4 would only be able to study six subjects instead of eight, there would have been an outcry, a lot of questions asked and, ultimately, it is unlikely the plan would have proceeded.

Yet, that is exactly what has happened, albeit by accident, in the Scottish education system. Today in Scotland in most state schools, the most able pupils are only able to sit six subjects.

Under the old Standard Grade exam system, most pupils studied seven or eight subjects in S4. This was the same across all local authority areas, as well as in the independent schools which followed the Scottish Qualifications Authority. It was also a similar number of qualifications that those studying GCSEs sat.

Three years ago, as the first Curriculum for Excellence cohort of pupils entered S4, Reform Scotland carried out research highlighting a wide variation in the maximum number of the new National 4 and 5s pupils could take in S4: a maximum that was based purely on the school a pupil attended or the authority in which the school was located, and not their individual ability.

We decided to return to the issue and see whether the situation had improved. It had not. More state schools have reduced the maximum number of subjects allowed to be taken in S4.

Three years ago in Edinburgh, East Dunbartonshire and Dumfries and Galloway the most able pupils could still study eight subjects in S4. In a number of schools in these areas only six subjects can now be studied; no schools in either East Dunbartonshire or Dumfries and Galloway now allow eight subjects to be studied.

Indeed, a majority of schools across Scotland now only allow a maximum of six subjects to be studied in S4. In a few schools it is as low as five. In contrast, peers who can afford private education can continue to take eight, or indeed nine National 4s and 5s.

My children will attend the same state high school I did. But whereas I had the opportunity and sat eight Standard Grades, at present their subject choice is being reduced to seven. I do not know whether the school will follow the majority of schools in Scotland and reduce further to six. My children’s generation are certainly no less gifted than their parents’ generation, so I have to question why their options are being narrowed. Not to mention the fact that pupils at independent schools are not seeing their options squeezed.

Of course, pupils with different abilities should be able to take a varying number of subjects in S4 and it is certainly true that there is so much more to school than simply the number of subjects you can study. But it cannot be right that the number of subjects a pupil can study is dependent on the school they attend or the local authority within which they live.

The brightest child at Crieff High School in Perth & Kinross is able to study eight subjects in S4. Less than 20 miles away, the brightest pupil at Perth Grammar will only have the option to study six subjects. That is simply unfair.

It is ironic and disappointing that a policy about extending broad general education into S3 has actually narrowed the education on offer in S4 for many young people. We need to end this accidental attainment gap.