Skip to main content

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

If you want your child to learn Gaelic, you should contact your education authority to find out if it is taught in your area, although this is more likely to be available in the Highlands or islands.

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

Most popular Good Schools Guide articles


  • Special educational needs introduction

    Some special needs are easy to spot, others are only determined once a child has experienced considerable difficulties, frustrations or social and emotional problems.  Over the years, diagnosis of and provision for SEN have improved, but both can still be a minefield. Identifying different kinds of special educational needs Few children fit a condition perfectly – if they do, we tend to say they are a ‘classic’ case. Most will not be straightforward: perhaps a dyslexic with dyspraxia and a touch of ADD, or a child with ASD who also has Down’s syndrome. Just as special needs are hard to…

  • The Good Schools Guide online subscription

    Find the best school for your child. One month subscription - £0.49 per day Three month subscription - £0.41 per day Six month subscription - £0.33 per day One year subscription - £0.29 per day Register for instant access to: ☑ Search for more than 30,000 schools in our parent friendly interactive directory. ☑ Create and save lists of schools via My Schools. ☑ Use our comparison grid to get exam results overview of schools you are interested in. ☑ Find comprehensive advice on state and independent schools, tutors and special needs. ☑ Catchment maps for English state schools by…

  • Finding a state grammar school

      There are currently around 164 state funded grammar schools located in 36 English local authorities, with around 167,000 pupils between them. There are a further 69 grammar schools in Northern Ireland, but none in Wales or Scotland. Almost half of these are considered 'selective authorities' (eg Kent and Buckinghamshire), where around one in five local children are selected for grammar school entry based on ability. The others are areas such as Barnet or Kingston, with only a few grammar schools. How to find a state grammar school Word of warning: not all selective grammar schools have 'grammar' in their…

  • Schools for children with performing arts talents

    As proud parents, we all know our children are unique. They're smarter than anyone else's, funnier, certainly more attractive, better behaved and above all bursting with the kind of talent that would leave Daniel Radcliffe or Charlotte Church standing. And sometimes, just sometimes, parental pride is justified.

  • State boarding schools

    If you think your child would benefit from a boarding school education, but are put off by the high fees and consequent limited social mix of a typical independent boarding school, you may find that a state boarding school is the answer. Read more... State grammar schools Counties such as Kent or Buckinghamshire are ‘selective authorities’ and most families will have at least one grammar school close to where they live. Elsewhere, for example in Reading or Kingston-on-Thames, there are just one or two grammar schools and competition for places at these is ferocious. Grammar schools are located in 36…


Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews:

30,000 Independent, state and special schools in our parent-friendly interactive directory
 Instant access to in-depth UK school reviews
 Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of over 1,000 schools
 Independent tutor company reviews

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

The Good Schools Guide subscription

GSG Blog >    In the news >

The Good Schools Guide newsletter

The Good Schools Guide Newsletter

Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.

Tired of London schools? There’s plenty of life elsewhere…

 
 

For a limited time get one month's Good Schools Guide subscription free with any purchase of The Good Schools Guide London North and London South