Schools should consider moving away from conventional routes through the senior phase if it leads to higher attainment for students, the Education Scotland chief executive has said.
Bill Maxwell told a conference on Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in Edinburgh that school leaders could allow students to skip National 5 exams in favour of a two-year Higher course and more in-depth study.
Some were already choosing to do this to "free up more time ... to get pupils to higher levels of attainment," he said. While it was only a minority of schools taking this route at the moment, he said he expected the number to grow.
Mr Maxwell said that as the first group of students was approaching the new National 4 and 5 qualifications, the focus of the discussion around CfE was shifting towards learner pathways. Scotland had "a well-established tradition of putting everyone through Standard Grades", he said. But there should now be an "unfreezing of conventional positions of how we design the senior phase in school".
There was a variety of models already emerging across the country, and Education Scotland was encouraging this move, he said. It should not only mean the possibility of bypassing National 5 for some able students, but also more coherent routes for those not heading towards university. Planning the senior phase on a more regional level was also encouraged.
Mr Maxwell said that some parents had raised concerns about the lack of a "safety net" if their children did not pass the Higher after the two-year course to bypass National 5. Communication to parents was key, he added.
Iain Ellis, chair of the National Parent Forum for Scotland, said parents were concerned that their children would "leave with nothing" if they failed their exam.
Gill Stewart, director of qualifications development at the Scottish Qualifications Authority, said that if a candidate was entered for Higher, there was no fall-back to a lower-level qualification, although they would be certificated for Higher-level units they achieved.
However, she said schools could change the level of qualifications taken by students up to March of the year of their course assessment.
"Schools are responsible for entering candidates for the appropriate level of qualification," she said, and teachers should use their judgement to assess a student's ability to cope.
Rebecca Gaukroger, head of admissions at the University of Edinburgh, said the university would not take into consideration whether or not a candidate had National 5 qualifications.