IT has always been the ultimate warning handed down to pupils by parents and teachers: “Buckle down and work or you’ll end up leaving school without any qualifications.” But could changes to the way Scotland’s qualifications are organised make it more likely that more pupils will do just that?

There is certainly real concern – so much so that fresh guidance on which qualifications pupils should sit is to be issued later this week. It will attempt to spell out to schools and parents what the differences between the National 4 and 5 qualifications are, as well as advise teachers on selecting the right level for each pupil.

The aim of the new guidance is to avoid an unintended consequence of a reform introduced by John Swinney soon after he became education secretary. From the start, Mr Swinney said his top priority in the job was teachers’ workload and when the unions told him that much of the unmanageable workload was down to time-consuming classroom assessments for National 5s, he acted. The assessments were scrapped.

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However, the concern now is that this could lead to another problem when the new system kicks in. The current arrangements have not been widely popular with parents – there has been a feeling among many the National 4 was a second-rate choice – but the saving grace in many ways was that children who did not complete all the classroom assessments for National 5 could still use the assessments they had passed to qualify for National 4.

That will not now be possible after the classroom assessments are scrapped, which means pupils who might have used their assessments as a fall-back to secure a National 4 qualification could instead end up with nothing. That is obviously not a desirable situation – hence the guidance to encourage teachers to select the correct level in the first place and guide pupils towards National 4 if that is the right choice rather than allow them to go for National 5.

The guidance may well work, but there are significant hurdles. First, the new system will have to overcome teachers’ natural desire to aim high with their pupils and help them achieve as much as they can by going for National 5. The reverse problem may also be the case. Without the safety net of National 4 will teachers become more risk averse and push greater numbers of pupils towards National 4 to ensure they don’t fail, which would result in a decline in attainment across Scotland. The guidance will also have to convince parents the National 4 is not a second-class qualification. Part of the problem in the National 4 gaining acceptance has been the fact there is no external exam, which may mean introducing one may be the only way to win parents’ confidence.

All these changes begin to undermine the founding principle of the Curriculum for Excellence which included the desire to create a system that was not merely an exam machine churning out pupils with good results but one that would equip them with broad-based learning likely to help them do well in the world after school and which relied upon continuous assessment to encourage and reward rather than what now seems like the rather dated concept of a one-off winner-takes-all exam.