The Scottish Government's plans to replace Standard grades and Intermediate 1 and 2 exams with a new qualification will mean that pupils can do only five examinable courses in S4, alongside tests of their literacy and numeracy skills, instead of the current eight.
The move will have serious implications for minority subjects, the exam income for the Scottish Qualifications Authority, pupils and teachers, it was claimed this week, following the formal launch of the consultation on "next generation" qualifications.
The new two-level exam, provisionally named General and Advanced General, will be the same length as the current Intermediate 1 and 2 qualifications, which are designed to be covered in a year - unlike the two-year Standard grade courses. This means there will be time for only five subjects in the S4 timetable.
Two members of the National Qualifications Steering Group - Judith Gillespie, who represents the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, and Alan Taylor, of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association - warned the proposal had not been thought through properly.
Mrs Gillespie said the restriction of choice to five subjects in S4 meant pupils would have to "get it right" when they made their option choices at the end of S3, because they would have to do the same subjects for Higher or Advanced Higher.
She also warned that pupils might choose to drop English and maths in S4 if they had to sit literacy and numeracy tests.
Mr Taylor described the proposals for S4 as "unworkable" and too restrictive. Both he and Bill McGregor, general secretary of the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, warned that very few schools would risk allowing pupils to by-pass the new S4 exam.
With pupils in S1-3 following a broad, general curriculum, teachers would have to devise their own test to assess which youngsters were capable of going straight to Higher, suggested Mr Taylor.
Larry Flanagan, convener of the education committee of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said there would be workload issues for teachers if they had to grade internal assessment units.
Mr Flanagan, who teaches English at Hillhead High in Glasgow, also expressed concern that, by creating separate literacy and English exams, Scotland might be going down the same road as England where there are separate language and literature qualifications.
"One of the strengths in Scotland has been that by having an integrated course, pupils are learning more about language through studying literature than through grammar books," he said.
- Standard grade General and Credit, and Intermediate 1 and 2, to be replaced with General and Advanced General qualifications, based on external exam and internal assessment
- compensatory awards for pupils who fail
- new literacy and numeracy tests at SCQF Levels 3-5 (equivalent levels to Foundation, General and Credit), including a portfolio of work from various disciplines plus external test
- three possible dates for the literacy and numeracy exam: end of S3, December of S4, and end of S4
- Highers and Advanced Highers could be studied over 12, 18 or 24 months
- introduction of a winter diet of exams
- most able young people to bypass General or Advanced General exams, allowing them to study Highers from S4 onwards.