PUPILS will spend less time doing tests as schools offer a better balance between coursework and assessment, according to Education Secretary John Swinney.

The Deputy First Minister made the comments yesterday on the eve of this year’s exam results day, when thousands of young people will get their marks.

A free helpline for teenagers and their families went live last night and, at the Skills Development Scotland call centre in Glasgow, Swinney said: “Whatever happens when the results come in tomorrow, remember that it will be a beginning, rather than an end point and if you are not sure or are looking for some advice then please do use this free helpline.”

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New standardised assessments will be introduced when the new term starts this month, with longer exams to be used in some cases.

Swinney said: “What we’ll see as a consequence of the changes that I’ve introduced is that young people will spend less time on assessment and more time on learning. In some circumstances exams have been extended but the balance between exams and coursework has been maintained.

“Young people, in what they do during the year, in all subjects except for maths, will be able to amass that portfolio of evidence and expertise which is fundamental to Curriculum for Excellence, to ensure that they deliver the strong qualifications to which they are entitled.”

Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith accused Swinney of making a “mess”, saying: “Pupils returning to secondary school next week are facing a shambles of the SNP’s creation – a rushed change to assessment, pushed through with hardly any consultation, which now risks confusing everybody.

“John Swinney was explicitly warned about the impact of these plans when he announced them but he decided to push them through in an attempt to appease the unions. Pupils and teachers are now going to pay the price.”

On today’s results, Swinney said: “Receiving your results can be exciting, scary and worrying all at the same time, and I think it’s important that we recognise this and make sure our young people have the right support available to them, to make the best decisions about their future.

“Moving on from school is an important and exciting step for young people. It’s vital that they know what their real options are and how to access them. This free helpline is an excellent service which is staffed by fully qualified and experienced careers advisers who will be able to help young people and their parents answer any questions about the choices going forward.

“If you get the results you are looking for, then that is fantastic. If you do better than expected or don’t get the grades you need this time round, then be certain that there are a huge number of options for you to consider and that there are a number of people available to support you.”

As the news was reaching pupils, Perth and Kinross Council said its learners had “achieved well”, with a pass rate of almost 89 per cent in Nat 4 awards and more than 80 per cent for Nat 5s.

Almost half of fourth year pupils achieved five or more Nat 5 passes, equalling the highest level recorded in the area since the new qualifications were introduced.

Meanwhile, the number of sixth year leavers attaining Highers has hit a seven-year high.

But charity NSPCC Scotland warned that not all students will have secured the grades they wanted. Last year calls to the organisation’s Childline service from youngsters worried about exams rose, with girls more than five times more likely than boys to seek its help.

NSPCC Scotland’s Joanna Barrett said: “Children and young people can feel incredible pressure during the exam period and this can turn to extreme anxiety around results time, especially if their marks don’t match up to their expectations or hopes.

“We’ve heard from pupils who’ve had panic attacks and severe stress and fear over their exams and potentially not getting the right grades. We would encourage every pupil who has not received the grades they wanted to remain calm and positive, and realise that today’s results are not the end of the world.”