The government has rebutted claims by the Scottish Conservatives that schools are being forced to drop Higher and Advanced Higher courses because of budget pressures and staffing restrictions, pointing out that subjects have also been added to the timetable.
Figures obtained by the Tories, under a Freedom of Information request, showed that almost a third of secondaries have cut Higher and Advanced Higher courses since 2006. The findings appear to lend weight to the concerns expressed by School Leaders Scotland (TESS last week) that pupils will face a "postcode lottery" in their experience of the new curriculum. The Scottish Baccalaureate for the sciences and languages, which is due to be introduced in August with a mix of Higher and Advanced Higher courses, could be hit.
The figures supplied to the Tories by 29 of the 32 councils revealed that 116 out of 376 state secondaries in 19 authorities have been forced to drop a range of subjects at these levels, including the sciences and languages. In 10 councils, no schools reported removing any Higher or Advanced Higher courses.
In total, 139 Higher and 209 Advanced Higher courses have been removed from the school time-table since 2006, according to the survey. These include 30 schools in 14 education authorities which have dropped one or more foreign languages and 26 secondaries in nine authorities which have removed one or more of the sciences, mostly at Advanced Higher. Fifteen have axed Advanced Higher English.
Ms Smith scorned the "sham" SNP manifesto which promised to "place science, modern languages and technology at the heart of education". She said: "While it is clearly the case that not every school could possibly resource every single subject at both levels, since this must reflect pupil demand for individual subjects, I am very concerned about the drop in courses offered at a number of schools across Scotland."
Ms Smith said it was of particular concern that, in the last three school sessions, 19 schools had cut four or more Advanced Higher courses and seven had dropped four or more Higher courses.
But the Government has issued new figures which paint a very different picture. These show that, from 2006 to 2008, 183 Higher courses were lost and 216 added to the timetable - a net gain of 33; and 241 Advanced Higher courses were dropped while 355 made an appearance - a net rise of 114.
Officials argue that focusing on individual schools is not a "robust indicator", because it does not take account of collaboration between schools and the use of technology to increase pupil access to courses. There would always be year-on-year fluctuations due to pupil demand.
A Government spokesperson said: "Figures from SQA show uptake has steadily increased with 137,324 pupils studying Higher courses this session, compared to 134,030 in 2006; and 15,504 are studying Advanced Highers, compared to 15,245 in 2006."