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The education system in Scotland is completely different from the rest of the UK. It is based on the Curriculum for Excellence which covers education from 3-18 years old.

When do children start school?

Children in Scotland usually start primary school in mid to late August when they are aged between four-and-a-half and five-and-a-half years old. Your child will be at primary school for seven years (p1-p7) before progressing to secondary school around the age of 11/12.

What is the Curriculum for Excellence?

The Curriculum for Excellence – which all state schools follow - can appear fiendishly complicated and has attracted some criticism in the past. But the overall aim is to provide a much broader education which not only teaches a wide range of subjects but equips your child with other life skills beyond the usual maths formulae or historical facts and figures.

Does it succeed in doing that? Well, it’s fair to say not everyone’s a fan, especially teaching staff who have borne the brunt of trying to implement it.

The Curriculum for Excellence is broken into two stages:

The Broad General Education

The Broad General Education (BGE) provides a rounded education from the early years (age 3) until the end of S3 (age 13/14).

The BGE is divided into five curriculum levels (early, first, second, third and fourth) across eight curriculum areas. These are:

  • expressive arts
  • health and well-being
  • languages (including English and modern languages)
  • mathematics
  • religious and moral education
  • sciences
  • social studies
  • technologies.

The only compulsory subject is religion.

Most pupils will progress through these stages at around the same age, but the curriculum is designed to be flexible to make it accessible, for example, to children with special needs, and therefore each child is supposed to progress at their own pace.

The senior phase

​The senior phase curriculum, from S4 to S6 (ages 15 to 18), follows on from the BGE. This is where pupils begin to sit Scottish national qualifications (National 4-5, Highers and Advanced Highers) which are set by the Scottish Qualification Authority. Pupils sit exams according to their ability but Nat 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers are the only exams to be externally examined so they are the real buzz words in terms of getting your child into university (although universities do not take Nat 5s into consideration in the same way they look at GCSEs).

Although Highers are your passport into university, more pupils are now staying on to sit Advanced Highers in sixth year. Typically pupils might sit up to three Advanced Highers. (These are equivalent to first year of many university courses and are seen as an excellent grounding for higher education.)

Be aware that schools have the freedom to offer the senior phase in a range of different ways ie offering different subjects over different timescales. The Scottish Qualification Authority does not specify the number of qualifications that schools should deliver. The thinking nowadays is that what matters is how many qualifications a child has when they leave school, not what they have at the end of a particular year or how long they personally take to achieve them.

Choosing a Scottish school

Which school your child goes to depends on the ‘catchment area’ in which you live. You can apply for a placement request if you want your child to go to a school outside your catchment area and a panel will decide if your child is the ‘most worthy’ out of all placing requests.

Types of school

The vast majority of schools are run by the local authorities and are called primaries and academies or high schools.

Special schools

There are a number of special schools in Scotland which generally deal with children who have very specific or severe additional support needs. A small number of children in special schools attend on a residential basis so that they can receive full-time care.

Some special schools are independently run, for example by charities. The education authority may pay for a child to attend one of these.

Denominational schools

Some schools in Scotland are associated with a religious denomination. These schools are provided by the education authority. If you would like your child to attend one of these schools, you can make a special placing request. The schools are run in the same way as other education authority schools, but they may set aside special time for religious services.

Gaelic education

In Scotland, approximately half of all local authorities offer pupils the opportunity to be taught through the Gaelic language. In addition to a local denominational or non-denominational catchment school, a ‘Gaelic Medium Education’ (GME) catchment school will also be available to select at enrolment. Where local provision is unavailable or oversubscribed, it may be possible to obtain a place within a neighbouring local authority through a placing request. 

Independent schools

There are a number of private or independent schools, both day and boarding, throughout Scotland. They are generally listed on the Register of Independent Schools and are monitored by the Scottish Education Department.

Some of these schools follow the English system and study towards GCSEs instead of National 4/5s and towards A levels instead of (or alongside) Highers and Advanced Highers. The International Baccalaureate has also been introduced in some independent schools.

You can find out more here

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