The Curriculum for Excellence management board has bowed to union pressure and will allow individual secondary departments to delay the introduction of the new National 4 and 5 qualifications if they feel they cannot meet the 2013-14 deadline.
Guidance from the board issued last week said that individual departments - but not whole schools - could "on an exceptional basis" present pupils for Intermediate exams instead of the new Nationals for that one year.
Larry Flanagan, education convener of the EIS teachers' union and a member of the board, said his union was still pushing for a year's delay for all secondary schools, but welcomed the management board's recognition that some would be "behind the pace" even by August 2013 when the new qualifications are supposed to be introduced.
School Leaders Scotland's general secretary, Ken Cunningham, said the move would allow the system to build in a little slack for departments which had, for instance, been hit by long-term illness. But he warned that the dispensation would have to be tightly controlled or "everyone and their aunt might try that particular game".
However, Alan Taylor, a national official with the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, predicted that no department would want to be identified as the exception.
In a bid to clarify other contentious areas, the board says schools should encourage more pupils to bypass National 4 and 5 and go straight to Highers. Its statement also seeks to debunk "the most common misunderstanding" that CfE limits pupils to five subjects in S4, as learning can begin in the S1-3 phase.
Early presentation should be limited to individuals, rather than whole classes or cohorts, it adds.
Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, said the latest guidance still left too much flexibility in the system.
"Parents want their child to be happy and successful at school, have subject choices that suit them, to be challenged, to have their eyes lifted and their horizons lifted. But parents also want clarity and my concern is that in the drive for clarity in this paper, there is no structure or coherence," she said.
Mrs Prior said the guidance failed to address another concern - that some universities favoured one-year Highers over two-year Highers. And if schools were being encouraged to allow pupils to bypass National 4 and 5 qualifications, would some pupils not effectively be doing three-year Highers?
The "big message" in the board's statement, according to Mr Flanagan, was that most students should be bypassing the lower-level qualifications and doing either National 5s or Highers over two years. Higher candidates should treat their S3 profile of prior learning as a recognition of their achievement up to and beyond CfE Level 4. But he acknowledged that it was a "big learning curve" for teachers to move away from being geared towards year-on-year qualifications.
Mr Taylor bemoaned the lack of progress on qualifications and argued the current timescale for developing the new exams was too tight. Nor was it in the best interests of young people to bypass exams before they sat Highers: they gave them good exam practice, offered a safety net, and were a good predictor of future success,
- A subject department - but not a whole school - may delay introduction of National 4 and 5 for a year;
- Bypassing National 4 qualifications and moving straight to two-year National 5s or Highers should become increasingly common;
- Students will not be restricted to five subjects in S4;
- There is no blanket ban on early presentation, but it should be used for individual cases, not for entire cohorts.
Original headline: CfE board backs down over National deadlines