THOUSANDS of pupils risk being 'disadvantaged' because of delays to the reform of a controversial qualification which is being shunned by schools.

The number of pupils sitting National 4 qualifications is in freefall and parents and teachers have demanded immediate changes to improve its reputation.

However, The Herald understands the current timeframe will mean no changes are likely for at least two years with the earliest implementation by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) set for 2019/20.

When National 4s were introduced in 2014 as part of the scrapping of Standard Grade the SQA said they would be seen as the equal of other qualifications.

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However, teachers and parents have warned the qualification had led to groups of pupils viewing themselves as “second class citizens” because there is no final exam.

New figures from the SQA show an 11 per cent decline in interest since 2015 with entries dropping from more than 130,000 to just over 116,000 this year.

In August, Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said National 4 had “reached the end of the road” and called for it to be scrapped.

Commenting on the latest development he said: "Teachers are already telling us that they are under pressure to enter pupils for National 5 units rather than National 4 because of the reputational damage that has been done in the eyes of parents and employers.

"National 4 is withering on the vine and changes need to be made as soon as possible because we are letting down a large group of pupils, many of whom need our support the most.

"It is being kicked into the long grass when it should be a priority because, for many of the pupils who sit National 4, it will be the qualification they leave school with and it should be something that is seen as having real value.

“If we don't get this right then they are being disadvantaged because of the reputation of National 4. They are being treated like second class citizens."

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Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), also called for the issue to be treated as a priority.

He said: "We have been somewhat disappointed in the slow progress of discussions and have expressed our concern at the suggestion any improvements to National 4 could be delayed for another two school years.

"Getting National 4 right is key to the potential success of the other changes being made to secondary school qualifications and change is required sooner rather than later.

"For many pupils gaining a National 4 award is a significant step and we are clear that this achievement should be celebrated while also recognising changes are required to help it fulfil the functions now being asked of it."

The EIS favours the introduction of two grades at National 4 with the upper level equivalent to the entrance standard for the more advanced National 5 qualifications.

The union also wants to see an external element of assessment introduced, but don’t think this requires a full-fledged exam.

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Eileen Prior. executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said National 4 had dropped down the priority list, with officials not seeing it as important enough to push through changes quickly.

She said: "There is a lot of comment about National 4 and the views are very varied. From some parents we hear that it is worth nothing, that it is rubbish, from from others we hear that we have to have a qualification like that.

"It is about perceived value and at the moment we are struggling for that perceived value amongst parents and employers and there is a low sense of value.

"A delay is not going to go down well and there was a feeling that something had to be done and to delay for three years is not going to go down well."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “National 4 is a key part of our national qualifications and the review must be carefully thought through, taking account of the views of a very wide range of education bodies and others.

"Good progress is being made in the discussions, but we still need to reach agreement on specific changes and on the timetable for introducing them.

"Any changes must take into account the timetable for changes to other National Qualifications requested by stakeholders including the EIS."

As part of the roll-out of Curriculum for Excellence the SQA is introducing revised qualifications at all levels including National 4, National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher.