Qualifications and education in Scotland

Scotland’s education system is very different from the education systems of other countries in the UK. We look at the Curriculum for Excellence and other aspects of the Scottish system.

Image of Fettes College, Scotland to represent the Scottish education system

Source: Fettes College

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How does the Scottish education system compare with the rest of the UK? We examine the differences.The Scottish Parliament has legislative control over all aspects of education in Scotland. The majority of Scottish schools follow the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) across nursery, primary and secondary stages, and the school year runs from the third week of August until late June.Children complete seven years of education at primary school (from P1 to P7) and a further six at secondary school (from S1 to S6). The system has five levels: Early (pre-school and P1); First (to the end of P4); Second (to the end of P7); Third and Fourth (S1 to S3); and Senior (S4 to S6, college, and so on).Unlike in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are no phases or stages; the curriculum runs from age three to 18. The Scottish Government only sets guidelines for the curriculum, giving schools more flexibility and freedom to make their own decisions about how and what to teach than does, for example, the National Curriculum in England.The curriculum is broken into two broad stages: a general education from early years to the end of S3, and a senior phase for pupils studying for qualifications (from S4 to S6). The broad general education is closely connected to the senior phase and provides a strong foundation for pupils to choose which qualifications best fit their abilities and interests.Many independent schools in Scotland offer GCSE, IGCSE, A Level or, in some instances, the IB (International Baccalaureate) instead of the Scottish CfE. One such school is Fettes College, a coeducational boarding school in the heart of Edinburgh.Fettes is the only school in Scotland to offer both A Levels and the IB. Providing this choice, it believes, allows each pupil to choose a curriculum that plays to his or her strengths. The school says that following either of these curricula greatly benefits university application, both in the UK and internationally.

School starting age in Scotland

Children born between March and August start school in the August following their fifth birthday. Children born between September and February begin school in the August before their fifth birthday.However, parents of children born between September and December can ask the local education authority to defer their child’s start date to the following August. Deferral is not automatic and is subject to approval. Parents of children born in January and February can also ask the local education authority to defer their child’s start date. These requests are approved automatically.

How are children assessed in the Scottish education system?

Currently, children are first screened in P1 and then assessed in reading, maths and spelling every year from P2 to P7. In each year, a random sample of students in P4 and P7 is chosen to take the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, to build a wider picture of standards across the country. However, from 2017, new standardised assessments will be introduced for pupils in P1, P4, P7 and S3. Once the new system is in place, the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy will be phased out.Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Education (HMIe) monitors schools in Scotland. The HMIe chooses a random sample of schools across the country each year and provides them with a letter explaining their strengths and weaknesses.

Types of school available in Scotland

Scotland has supported comprehensive secondary schools for the past 50 years. In the 1960s, the grammar-school system was phased out, but some schools have retained ‘grammar’ in their names, despite being non-selective.There are over 50 independent schools in Scotland. According to the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), 4.3 per cent of pupils attended such a school in 2015. The figure was much higher in cities such as Edinburgh, where around 30 per cent of students were educated privately.


All qualifications in Scotland that form part of the CfE aim to develop pupils to become successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.Between 2013 and 2016, three new qualifications have been introduced: Nationals, Highers and Advanced Highers.
  • National 1 and National 2 are replacing Access 1 and Access 2
  • National 3 is replacing Access 3 and Standard Grade (Foundation Level)
  • National 4 is replacing Standard Grade (General Level) and Intermediate 1
  • National 5 is replacing Standard Grade (Credit Level) and Intermediate 2
Most pupils take their Nationals at 16. They can then stay at school for another two years and work towards Higher qualifications, which are needed for university entrance, and Advanced Highers, which are equivalent to the first year of university and can be used to apply for the second year.The Higher and Advanced Higher systems are being replaced, although the naming and standards of both systemswill remain the same.The Scottish Baccalaureate is provided by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), which oversees the school examinations system. It is available in languages, science, expressive arts and social sciences. According to the SQA, what makes this qualification unique is its Interdisciplinary Project, an Advanced Higher Unit in which pupils apply their subject knowledge in realistic contexts.The SQA publishes National 4 and 5, Higher, Advanced Higher and Scottish Baccalaureate results earlier in August than the GCSE and A Level results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are released.

Further education

There are 15 universities and 13 colleges in Scotland, including two Russell Group universities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the world-renowned University of St Andrews. Entrance to university is processed by UCAS, the UK universities and colleges admissions service.This is a revised version of an article originally published in August 2016.
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