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An overview of the Scottish education system

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How does the school education system work in Scotland? What are the differences between the National Curriculum and the Curriculum for Excellence? We explain how students are assessed within both systems in the UK.
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Scotland has its own qualification framework that is separate from the one set for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but each one is recognised around the UK. England and Wales follow the National Curriculum (with the exception of the Foundation Phase in Wales), Northern Ireland follows the Northern Ireland Curriculum and Scotland follows the Curriculum for Excellence (also known as the CfE) for nursery, primary and secondary schools.

Children in Scotland complete seven years of primary school, starting in P1 (the equivalent of Reception classes in England), going up to P7 (the equivalent of Year 7 in England). After this, they do six years of secondary school from S1 to S6 (equivalent to Y8 to Y13 in England). Secondary schools in Scotland are also known as high schools or academies.

What is the Curriculum for Excellence?

The Curriculum for Excellence is a major educational reform with the aim of providing a wider, more flexible range of courses and subjects. As the Scottish government only sets guidelines about the school curriculum, schools needn’t stick to rigid learning paths and can make their own decisions on what to teach pupils.

There are three core subjects that schools must ensure are taught: health and wellbeing, literacy and numeracy. Other than that, they’re free to:

  • introduce projects that use skills and knowledge from more than one subject, leading to joined-up learning
  • teach about people and places from their local area
  • ask pupils about areas they’re interested in studying

What qualifications are there in Scotland?

Between 2013 and 2016, three new qualifications were introduced: Nationals, Highers and Advanced Highers. This is what they’re replacing:

  • National 1 and National 2 replacing Access 1 and Access 2
  • National 3 replacing Access 3 and Standard Grade (Foundation Level)
  • National 4 replacing Standard Grade (General Level) and Intermediate 1
  • National 5 replacing Standard Grade (Credit Level) and Intermediate 2
  • Higher (new) replacing Higher
  • Advanced Higher (new) replacing Advanced Higher

Most children will be around 15 when they take Nationals. They can opt to stay in secondary school for two more years to take exams for Higher qualifications – which they’ll need to apply for university – and Advanced Highers – equivalent to the first year of university and used for applying to enter the second year of university.

How are children assessed in primary school?

Since 2017 children in Scotland have completed Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) in literacy and numeracy in P1, P4, P7 and S3.

There are five defined levels within the Scottish educational system. Each is reached based on the teacher’s assessment of a student’s abilities and readiness to progress, but general year guidelines are as follows:

  • Early (pre-school years and P1);
  • First (to the end of P4);
  • Second (to the end of P7);
  • Third and Fourth (S1 to S3);
  • Senior phase (S4 to S6, college, etc.).

Scottish school year groups

It's hard to draw exact parallels between English and Scottish year groups. This is because in Scotland, children start school somewhere between the ages of four and a half and five and a half, depending on when their birthday is.

The Scottish academic year also runs from August to June, rather than September to July as in England.

The table below shows approximate equivalents between primary school years in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Age during school yearEngland and Wales:
National Curriculum (plus Foundation Phase in Wales)
Northern Ireland:
Northern Ireland Curriculum
Curriculum for Excellence
5ReceptionYear 1P1 (Early level)
6Year 1Year 2P2 (First level)
7Year 2Year 3P3 (First level)
8Year 3Year 4P4 (First level)
9Year 4Year 5P5 (Second level)
10Year 5Year 6P6 (Second level)
11-12Year 6Year 7P7 (Second level)

Secondary education in Scotland runs from S1 to S6. Years S1 to S4 are mandatory; S5 and S6 are optional.

Because Scottish year groups don't correspond exactly to year groups in the rest of the UK, it's more useful to think about when qualifications are sat.

  • S4 is roughly equivalent to Year 11. Pupils sit National 5s, which are a similar level to GCSEs.
  • S5 is roughly equivalent to Year 12. This is the penultimate year of school education. Pupils sit Scottish Highers, which are similar to the old AS Levels in England.
  • S6 is the final year of school, equivalent to Year 13. Pupils may sit Scottish Advanced Highers, which are similar to A Levels, or further Highers / National 5s.