Education system in Scotland

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Age in years Phase
0-5 State and private pre-schooling is available. Local authorities are obliged to provide places for children 3-4 years if their parents desire one. ‘Sure Start’ programmes are also provided for children under-4 years from deprived families.
5-12 Primary School Compulsory education runs from 5-16 years. However, the curriculum is not prescriptive and the Scottish Executive Education Department (SEED) actively encourages flexibility. That said, they do provide guidelines for education authorities and schools in the form of the 5-14 National Guidelines. ( )

These encourage a balance of the five main subject areas:

  • Mathematics
  • Language
  • Environmental Studies
  • Expressive Arts
  • Religious and Moral Education

As well as the inclusion of several cross-curricular themes:

  • Personal and Social Development
  • Enterprise in Education
  • Education for Citizenship
  • The Culture of Scotland
  • Information and Communications Technology

The five main subject areas are assessed by students sitting tests when a teacher feels the individual or group is ready to do so. Their purpose is to determine what level (A-F) a pupil is at.

12-16 Secondary School The majority of secondary schools are state comprehensive schools. There are also denominational schools (largely Roman Catholic) and Integrated Community Schools (providing health, social and psychological care alongside education.) These schools follow the curriculum set out by the Scottish Executive.

Once students have completed the 5-14 Curriculum they enter the second stage of the Curriculum in Scotland. Students in S3-S4 (ages 14-16) sit the Standard Grade. Students take 7-8 subjects, including English and mathematics, at one of three levels:

  • Foundation (grade 5-6)
  • General (3-4)
  • Credit (1-2)

Students with special needs can sit Access courses (1-3). Access 3 is equivalent to foundation level at Standard Grade. Some students sit Intermediate level course (see below) at 14-16.

16-18 School or College Intermediate Levels

These qualifications are for students who have completed Standard Grades, Access 3 or want to study a new subject. For others, Intermediate 2 forms a bridge between Standard Grade and Highers.

Highers and Advanced Highers The former are for students who have obtained Standard Grade credit level or Intermediate 2. Highers are necessary for degree study at University or College and students may sit examinations in up to 5 or 6 subjects. Advanced Highers deepen students’ knowledge, skills and understanding of the subject studied for Highers and are useful for securing a place in higher education or employment. With the Higher Still reforms, students can now bypass the Higher examinations and just study for Advanced Highers over 2 years, though many still opt to take Highers as well.

5 core skills (communication, numeracy, information technology, problem solving and working with others) are also studied in Higher Still courses. Students must pass all five to obtain a Scottish Group Award, which is valued by employers.

17 years + Higher Education Higher Education is available at Universities, Colleges of Higher Education, Colleges of Further Education and the Open University in Scotland. Universities offer degree courses and, sometimes, Higher National Diplomas (HND). Further Education Colleges rarely offer degree level study but make a significant contribution to further education in Scotland, catering for over 25% of those in higher education.

Most students study for 4 years to obtain an Honours degree (H4), though they may stop at Bachelors degree level (H3). Those studying towards a particular profession (e.g. medicine or teaching) have to undergo a further year of training (H5). (

Lifelong Learning It is now very common for mature students to enrol on courses at Institutes of Higher Education, particularly on part-time courses. However, lifelong learning is also provided by national bodies, employers and other organisations.

Educational Alternatives

Independent Schools

Also known as private or public schools. These schools do not receive public funds but require parents to pay fees instead. They are run by special trusts and are able to decide on their own curriculum. None-the-less, most schools do follow the guidance provided by the Scottish Executive and enter their students for public examinations.

Independent primary schools are split into pre-preparatory (2-7) and preparatory (7-11). The latter focuses on preparing pupils for the common entrance examination which pupils need to pass to secure a place at an independent secondary school.

Gaelic Medium Schools

Gaelic is the original language of Scotland and some schools (primary and secondary) still teach through the medium of Gaelic. It is also available as a subject at both these levels too with the possibility of taking examinations in Gaelic.

Home schooling

Parents have the right to withdraw their child from state education and to educate them at home. However, the local authority is required to ensure that all children receive a full-time education that is suitable to their age and ability.


Report of The Scottish Committee (Visited 7-July-05).

Scottish Executive Website (Visited 7-July-05).

Useful Links

Learning and Teaching Scotland
This is a national public body providing guidance and support for teachers, school managers, local educational authorities, parents and others involved in education. (Visited 7-July-05)

Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA)
This website is the homepage of the SQA, the national public body that is responsible for qualifications other than degrees in Scotland. (Visited 7-July-05)

The Schools System in Scotland
A description how schools are run and funded in Scotland, how pupils are assessed and what options are available for them. (Visited 7-July-05)