PUPILS are "marking time" in the first three years of secondary school before they begin formal exams, parents have warned.

As a result, many are struggling to adapt to the pace of learning once they reach fourth year and begin studying National 5 or Higher qualifications.

The concerns are highlighted in a report by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) following visits to 40 secondary schools earlier this year.

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Previously, pupils would have started studying Standard Grades in S3, but they now have an extra year of a more general education before they begin the new National 4 and National 5 courses introduced under Curriculum for Excellence (CfE).

The report states: "While parents were generally happy about the transition from primary to secondary, they felt there was a degree of marking time in S1 to S3, noting an increase in pace particularly in S4."

The report highlighted "uncertainty" in a number of schools over how the S3 year should be used to best effect with teachers feeling the so-called broad general education "was not preparing learners for S4 and course assessments".

It added: "Many learners expressed the view that they did not feel that S1–S3 was a good preparation ... both in the pace of work they had experienced and in the depth and breadth of the skills and knowledge they had developed to prepare them for the requirements of the senior phase.

"If the intention is to have an even gradient of learning from S1–S6, from the learner perspective this is not happening as well as it could in all curriculum areas."

However, this was not the case in other schools were pupils felt "well enough" prepared in S1–S3 for future challenges.

Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said the survey results were a concern.

She said: "Pace, breadth and depth of learning in the early years of secondary appear to be concerns among all concerned.

"This is a worry because all young people need to feel challenged as well as supported and encouraged as they move through school."

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland teaching union, said there was concern about the third year of secondary being a "soft touch".

He said: "There does need to be significantly more challenge for pupils to prepare them for the qualifications to come.

"That area of CfE has not worked particularly well and, for a lot of pupils, the S3 experience has not been a successful enough bridge between the the early years of secondary and the senior phase. S3 programmes should be made more advanced."

The report also uncovered concerns over the levels of literacy and numeracy demonstrated by pupils as they moved up from primary school.

It said: "Some teachers and senior management teams continued to express concerns about the perceived levels of numeracy and literacy of learners arriving from primary ... noting it was making it difficult for these learners to access fully other areas of the curriculum."

As a result of the difficulties schools are now assessing how they can improve the experience up to S3 with a focus on skills development in literacy, English and the sciences.

However, staff felt reforms were more difficult because on ongoing changes to qualifications and consequent advice from the SQA, schools body Education Scotland.