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Intro to Scottish Education

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Starting School

In Scotland, the school (primary; secondary) system seems to have its cut off at variable dates, roughly between the end of Feb and the middle of March. It seems to stretch both ways though and parents are usually given the option of which year they want their children to be part of. As with most things final decisions regarding cut-offs are left to the school administration to decide.

In England the cut off generally seems to run with the academic year meaning that all the pupils are the same "age" at the end of the academic year. This means that Scottish children born between August and March are usually one year ahead than their equivalent English counterparts and can go to university younger as a result.

Primary and Secondary

In Scotland, primary school runs from age 4/5 for 7 years and High School (both private schools and state schools) runs for up to 6 years. After 4 years of High School children are usually 15 & 16 and sit Standard Grade exams (usually 7). A few children leave school at this point, there is no obligation to graduate from High School as there is in the US and pupils may leave at any time after the age of 16. After 5 years of High School, pupils sit Highers. These can be used for going to university in Scotland and pupils generally sit about 5. Year 5 starts as soon as the Standard grade exams are over, i.e. the end of May, and pupils who have to change schools to take Highers do so at this point. At University level, Scottish courses are generally one year longer than their English counterparts. An 'ordinary' degree usually takes three years in Scotland, an honours degree takes four years. Unlike universities in the United States where an 'ordinary' degree takes four years and some students even attend military universities.

Leaving School

About 7% of the students intending to go to further education leave school at this point, aged 16/17. The remainder stay on for 6th year, to do Advanced Highers, additional Highers, resits or other subjects. Advanced Highers are of a standard above that of A-levels and constitute the equivalent of the first year of a university degree. Advanced Highers are necessary for entrance to English universities for subjects studied at both school and university. A small number of Scottish schools offer A-levels.

A small number of English schools offer Scottish exams too. Scottish results are generally published the first week in August and receive modest publicity in England. English results receive extensive publicity in Scotland, due to the fact that the UK news is in effect the English and International news and there is no Scottish opt out for English only news stories (maybe the director general of the BBC will start seeing sense on this one?)

Exam options

Pupils can study GSVQ's, NC modules, Standard grades, Higher grades, A levels and possibly even Higher National Certificate at school. There is also an 'Advanced Higher' which has replaced Certificates of Sixth Year Studies.

The reform has resulted in the amalgamation of the two awarding bodies the SEB (who awarded highers and standard grades) and SCOTVEC. The new body is the Scottish Qualifications Authority (see [17.2]).See

In practice though you'd have to leave high school and study HNCs at college as no high school could run them as it isn't cost effective to teach a whole separate course to a single student.

Comparisons with England

The Scottish "Higher" system is generally regarded as superior to that in England for a number of reasons:
1) It is possible to fail one or two Highers and still have enough qaulifications to enter university. Less pressure is put on pupils to pass everything at the first attempt.
2) It is possible to use 6th year to resit Highers and gain additional qualifications. In England, there is no time to do this if you fail an important exam, the resits are in December (There are Tertiary College courses to cater for pupils whose grades were not up to standard.) 3) Pupils study a wider range of subjects, offering the opportunity for a broader education and perhaps a vocational subject.


The Scottish summer holidays run from the end of June to the middle of August, usually two weeks ahead of those in England although the dates of holidays are left to individual local education authorities (LEAs).

Advanced Highers

A bizarre quirk of the educational system is that whereas A-levels and CSYS are broadly the same level, English students who have done relevant A-levels may get exemption from certain subjects in 1st year University (or even the whole year), whereas the Scottish CSYS apparently counts for nothing within the Scottish further education system. This appears to be changing (eventually) and some Scottish universities now give direct entry to second year if you have specified CSYS/Advanced Higher grades.

Scottish Universities have full control over their degree system and while inspectors from education authorities evaluate the standard subjects are being taught at the results and actual creation of the exam is left up to the university the exam is sat at. Colleges tend to either be affiliates of the SQA or a local university.

Due to the rarity of Advanced Highers (people only tend to do them for subjects they plan to study at university) most universities have slight alterations of their entry requirements when considering Advanced Highers (i.e. if the university requires two subjects at Higher in grade B for a subject (as well as other things for example BBBB tends to be the norm for any subject in the faculty of art) it will accept an Advanced Higher at level A or B in place of these two qualifications.) The difficulty with factoring Advanced Highers in when considering entry requirements is that entry requirements vary drastically from one university to another so it is impossible to say what is valued and what is not. While Advanced Highers ARE recognised by universities it is quite possible to get into any degree course without ever sitting one provided you received reasonable results in your highers.

Gaelic medium

There is education through the medium of English and at playgroup; pre-school; primary school and college level there is also teaching through the medium of Gaelic in Scotland. There are exams for both Gaelic learners and native speakers.

In my school in the 1970's and 1980's Gaelic wasn't allowed despite us having a national Gaelic bard as a teacher there. Russian and Latin were offered instead. The following article may be interesting.

Scottish Literature

It is said that Robert Burns seems to occupy an incidental part of the Scottish curriculum compared to William Shakespeare.

What is taught in Scottish schools as the literature portion of the English courses (Higher and Advanced Higher) is left to the discretion of the teacher provided the prose/poetry is of a reasonable standard. At higher level Shakespeare is the only drama which counts in the exam and generally schools teach one example of prose, one Shakespeare play and a selection of work from one poet to fulfil the literature exam. The SQA advises (though I'm not entirely sure if this is mandatory, I'd have to check) that every class be taught at least one example of Scottish text. This is simply to counteract the old system (of about a decade ago I think) when Scottish texts weren't counted as valid examples of English Literature.

The teaching of Scottish literature and language is conducted to a point however as the majority of pupils and teachers in Scotland cannot speak Gaelic studying the language can hardly be made mandatory. While schools have the option of teaching it they tend not to unless in the far north as it isn't seen as being especially useful when seeking employment or further education (or at least not as much as German, French, Latin etc ). As far as literature goes there is only so much can be studied in the years at school and with the exception of older works like Burns and colloquial speech like Irvine Welsh or Lewis Grassic Gibbon like to write in, most Scottish writers tend to write in standard English as it is what they, and the majority of their readers, speak.

Education History

With reference to the rest of the world, Scots education is thought of highly and we have a long history of being a well educated country. Scotland had five universities for a long time when England only had two. Scotland had way and by far the largest percentage of primary secondary and tertiary educated population in Europe, until Prussia caught up in the 18th Century.

England had one of the *lowest* percentages in Europe.

Example 1864

Secondary school :
Scotland 1 in 205
Prussia 1 in 249
France 1 in 570
England 1 in 1300

The Scottish Education Act of 1696, heralded the first National system of education in the World since ancient Sparta, and spawned the Scottish Enlightenment, which in turn spearheaded the European Enlightenment.

From my own experience in both Scottish schools and on an educational exchange to the US, it seems Scottish schools are approximately 1-3 years ahead of their US counterparts in most subjects apart from US History and US sport. This difference carries on right through University and only equals out at the M.Sc. and Ph.D. level which are about the same in Scotland and the US. Given that a M.Sc. usually only takes 1 year full time in Scotland, and longer in the US it shows that the American undergraduate degree does not reach as high a level. This is borne out also in the way various professional bodies treat US qualifications versus Scottish and British ones.

Religious nonsense

It is mandatory to attend religious education in Scottish High Schools. It isn't general, though. Many schools subsume RE in Social Education. Why religion has such a high place in the curriculum and Scots literature and language do not is anyone's guess.

Religious Education is mandatory to such an extent that when school inspectors discovered it was not being taught in my school to fifth years (note : Fifth and sixth years have the option of not being there at all so why it is necessary to teach them RE god only knows [sic]) they enforced the practice. In Scottish schools RE, Social Education and, I think, Physical Education is mandatory up to an including fifth year. No doubt some schools have not had this enforced yet but it's only a matter of time. Thankfully sixth years are excluded from this ruling seeing as, in general, they tend to have so many free periods that enforced subjects would simply be stupid.

One person's experience

In closing I'll give the example of my own school which is currently messing around with its timetabling system in order to increase the uniformity of subjects and period length.

In first year pupils are taught English, Maths, General Science, History/Modern Studies/Geography ( on a rotating basis, 3 months each if I recall correctly) Home Economics, Computing, Tech Studies, Graphics, Craft and Design (more complicated system due to the availability of craft rooms or lack thereof) Art, Music, Drama, PE, RE and Social Ed and finally by order of the SQA 'whichever modern language they had begun to have taught to them in Primary school'. As all the schools in our catchment area teach French, the school has decided it will teach French as well. To all of them. Whether they wish to do German or Spanish or not. Subjects such as English, Maths Science get three periods a week, rotational subjects two and subjects like computing, drama and music only one.

In second year the exact same subjects are taught the exact same way with the exception that at the end of the year pupils will choose their subjects to study for standard grade based on teacher recommendations as to whether they should be taught Foundation/General or General/Credit. The Scottish Standard grades are graded 1-7 with 1-2 being Credit, 3-4 General, 5-6, Foundation and 7, Fail. Each level ( Foundation, General and Credit ) has a single exam but each pupil sits two level based on what their academic level has been estimated at. The highest grade you attain receives dominance so even if you get a 4 in the general exam a 1 in credit will still be a 1 in credit.

In third and fourth years candidates study for their standard grades. Classes for larger subjects tend to be ability filtered but some subjects such as Tech Studies only have enough applicants each year to justify a single class. It is worth noting that Drama screws up the whole system by only having one single paper for all three levels. Candidates can choose whatever they want with the following restrictions - The must choose English, Maths, a science (either Physics, Chemistry, Biology or General Science if it wasn't felt they could handle the individual disciplines), the modern language they were studying (French), An Aesthetic subject (Art, Drama, Home Economics, Music), A social subject ( Modern Studies, Geography or History), a technological subject (Tech Studies, Graphics, Craft and Design, Computing) and finally an additional subject which is either social, a modern language, aesthetic, a science or a technological subject. Personally I opted for English, Maths, French, Modern Studies, Chemistry, Tech Studies, Computing and Drama.

In fifth year candidates sit their 'Higher Still' exams. The difference between Higher and Higher Still is that the latter has internal assessments during the year which decreases the emphasis on the final exam. Candidates in my school can either do the subjects they did at Standard Grade, 'Crash' Highers in related subjects or ... leave. Crash Highers tend to be rare in Fifth year.

While most people who only received Foundation marks for their standard grades just leave it's worth mentioning that in addition to Higher Still (only available if you got a credit grade in the subject or a related subject) there is Intermediate 2 for those with general grades and Intermediate 1 for those with foundation grades. It's also worth mentioning that there is talk of the standard grades being phased out all together and replaced with the Intermediate exams which means pupils will be doing the same style of exams from 3rd right into 6th. Pupils are limited to maximum of five subjects, no exceptions. I was the only person to receive eight '1's in my school and opted to study English, Maths, French, Computing and Chemistry at Higher Still.

In sixth year pupils either leave, re-sit exams from the previous year they needed/wanted to get a better grade in or sit additional exams. Advanced Highers become available for subjects you got either an A or a B pass in at higher (but the latter only if the teacher(s) you had feels you were capable of an A) but only tend to run in my school for English, Maths, The Sciences and Music as there just aren't enough people for the other subjects. You cannot justify running a class for only one or two people. Last years Advanced Higher English only had six candidates. Universities allow applicants from fifth year to enter degree programs so both low and high performers often leave in fifth year however the number of pupils 'staying on' in sixth year is growing. Pupils in my school must do a minimum of three subjects in fifth and sixth year and people applying to do Intermediate 1 or 2 in sixth year are encouraged to leave and pursue those subjects in college (and 'stop wasting everyone's time' to quote my depute principal). As far as Advanced Highers go while a good number of people take them due to the limitations very few do more than two. The norm tends to be one, either English or Maths. A fair number this year are taking Maths and Physics, one English and Physics and one Maths and Music I think I'm right in saying that not a single person is doing three subjects at advanced higher. Personally I'm applying for Advanced Higher English, Higher Still Physics (crash), Biology ( crash) and History (crash). I've applied to do Psychology (Higher Still) on what is called a 'distance learning programme' from Telford College Edinburgh ( which allows schools to run subjects for their pupils via the internet which class sizes and lack of staff would otherwise render infeasible). I am the only person at the school who has applied for five subjects in sixth year however as Telford have not got in touch it's unlikely that Psychology will be going ahead which means not a single person at my school will be taking five subjects in sixth year. Some of these I may later be ejected from, naturally it all depends on the results of the exams I'm in the middle of sitting right now.

See also
The Scottish Office Education and Industry department, information about education in Scotland

Scotland org's Educational section

The Scottish Higher Education Funding Council is at
has information on Scottish Primary schools

Learning and Teaching Scotland, see [17.4]

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