The number of schools where pupils are taking an average of six subjects or fewer in S4 has increased by more than 250% since education reforms in the Curriculum for Excellence were introduced, the Tories have claimed.
Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said in 2018 there were 165 schools where this was the case, compared to just 46 in 2013.
Over the same period, she told the First Minister the number of schools where S4 pupils sit an average of seven or more exams fell from 308 to to 182 – a drop of more than 40%.
The Scottish Tory leader challenged Nicola Sturgeon on the issue a week after Education Secretary John Swinney had dismissed Conservative concerns on teaching as a a “moanfest”.
Ms Davidson demanded to know if the new figures her party had uncovered were “part of some great moanfest conspiracy, too”.
Ms Sturgeon said performance in Scotland’s schools was on the rise, saying more than 30 of teenagers leave with five Highers or more now – compared to 22% in 2009.
“No matter how much Ruth Davidson wants to talk down the performance of Scottish education the facts quite frankly are proving her wrong,” she said.
But the Tory leader, who pressed her on the issue at First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament, said her party had asked schools about subject choice.
Ms Davidson told MSPs: “We got results from every school in Scotland setting out the average number of qualifications taken by pupils in S4 over the last years.
“In 2013, when Curriculum for Excellence was introduced, there were 308 secondary schools where pupils took an average of seven or more qualifications at S4.
“By 2018, that figure had fallen to just 182, a drop of more than 40%, and by contrast the number of schools where pupils took six subjects or fewer has gone up from just 46 in 2013 to 165.”
Education expert Professor Jim Scott “confirms that since the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence just over 200 schools have declines or significant declines in the number of entries for SQA qualifications where as just over 50 demonstrate an increase”, Ms Davidson added.
She added the decrease was caused by “schools not having enough teachers or support to provide full choice” to their pupils.
Ms Sturgeon countered: “Much of the analysis Professor Scott has done has looked at qualifications at S4.
“The fundamental point we are making here is while of course that is important, it is the qualifications young people leave school with and we are seeing more young people leave school with more qualifications, we are seeing the gap between the richest and the poorest narrow.”
The First Minister added: “The facts are these at level 5 we see the percentage of pupils getting qualifications increase, at level 6 we see it increasing.
“In 2009, 22% of young people left school with five Highers or more – that is now more than 30% of pupils and we are seeing the attainment gap narrow.
“The evidence does not bear out Ruth Davidson’s analysis. The evidence is of an education system that is improving and young people that are doing better.”
On teacher numbers, the SNP leader said: “There are more teachers in our schools now than at any time since 2010, there are more primary school teachers in our schools than at any time since I was at primary school.”
She added: “Ruth Davidson’s got a bit of a cheek talking about numbers of teachers in our schools when she is the leader of the austerity party in Scotland.”