Qualifications and education in Scotland

Scotland’s education system is very different to the education systems of other countries in the UK and has gone through a period of major reform. We look at the Curriculum for Excellence in its bid to aid student progression into Higher Education.

Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20
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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.GIESF-in-text-bannerMany 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 Merchiston, a boarding and day school for boys in Edinburgh. Merchiston offers the English curriculum of GCSEs and A Levels but tailors its approach to the individual and in some subjects offers the CfE where this best suits the boys involved. In addition, to encourage pupils to think beyond the boundaries of examination success, the school delivers an ‘Enlightened Curriculum’ which includes an extensive catalogue of events; visiting speakers; pupil-led societies and visits to universities which aims to develop broad, enquiring minds.

Scottish school starting age for children

  • 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.


From 2017, new standardised assessments were introduced for pupils in P1, P4, P7 and S3 as part of the National Improvement Framework (NIF) for Scottish Education. The assessments in literacy and numeracy aim to help teachers identify children’s progress. They are completed entirely online.

Scottish school types

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.
Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20
There are over 73 independent schools in Scotland. According to the Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS), 4.3  per  cent of pupils attended such a school in 2016. 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 were introduced: Nationals, Highers and Advanced Highers.• National 1 and National 2 replaced Access 1 and Access 2
• National 3 replaced Access 3 and Standard Grade (Foundation Level)
• National 4 replaced Standard Grade (General Level) and Intermediate 1
• National 5 replaced Standard Grade (Credit Level) and Intermediate 2Most 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 directly for the second year.The Higher and Advanced Higher systems have also been reformed in the past few years but have kept the same names. According to the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), which oversees the school examinations system, the new qualifications “continue to focus on developing learners’ knowledge and understanding but they also focus on developing the skills that learners will need when they move on to further education, higher education, training or employment.”
Relocate Global Guide to Education and Schools in the UK 2019/20
The SQA also provides the Scottish Baccalaureate. 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: Scottish college and university

There are 15 universities and 26 colleges in Scotland which are all located within 13 regions. These include two Russell Group universities, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the world-renowned University of St Andrews. Entrance to university is processed by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).This article was refreshed on 25 July 2019.
The Guide to Education & Schools in the UK is designed to help relocating parents make informed education choices.
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