There has been a sharp rise in the number of pupils taking advantage of regulations allowing them to sit exams earlier than normal - and the floodgates could now be opened further, leading to serious concern among teachers.
Figures in the Scottish Executive's consultation paper on "age and stage" restrictions, issued yesterday (Thursday), show an increase from 802 in 2000, the first year of the rule change, to 13,217 last year. This covers pupils sitting Standard grade in S3, Intermediate in S4 and Higher in S4.
Another 2,112 successfully applied to sit these exams even earlier under an "exceptional entry" regime. From last August, this has allowed schools to enter groups of exam candidates, whereas they had previously to go through a cumbersome process of applying separately for each individual.
As indicated in last week's TES Scotland, the Executive this week began a three-month consultation on whether to retain, modify or abolish the existing restrictions. These were first relaxed in 1999, so that schools could enter pupils for Standard grades in S3 or at age 151Z2, Intermediate and Higher exams in S4 or at 161Z2, and CSYSAdvanced Higher in S5 or 171Z2.
It is the existence of these revised restrictions on which the Executive now wants to gauge reaction, but it warns a balance will have to be struck between flexibility for schools to offer exams early and the maturity of pupils enabling them to do so.
The five options in the consultation paper all have advantages and disadvantages, the Executive states. It warns that outright abolition of restrictions or even replacing them with guidance may lead to pressures from parents and schools themselves to allow pupils to sit exams before they are ready.
There could also be "significant divergence in policy between education authorities or within education authority areas as different authorities and headteachers pursue varying strategies. This could make it more difficult for pupils moving between schools."
The practical problems for schools, according to HMI reports, appear to centre on whether they would have the staff or classroom space to cope with different groups of pupils pursuing the same courses at different times.
However, the consultation paper points out that any changes would be permissive rather than a requirement. The proposals are about what suits pupils' needs and local circumstances.
The unions are likely to be extremely wary. In its submission to the national education debate, the Educational Institute of Scotland expressed "serious concerns" about the pressures to adopt wholesale age-related changes.
These include not just lowering the age for sitting exams but expecting nursery schools to introduce more formal primary teaching and bringing secondary patterns into the upper primary.