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Curriculum for Excellence - how to negotiate the world of Nat 5s and Highers

Curriculum for Excellence (CFE) is the Scottish curriculum for ages 3-15. Exams are set by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). They are National 1-5, Highers and Advanced Highers.

The CFE was developed by the Scottish Government to deliver a much broader education with greater emphasis on independent learning. Schools have been given greater flexibility to design the curriculum for their Senior Phase pupils according to their area’s requirements. For example, some parts of the Highlands may focus on the Gaelic language or an Aberdeen school may have a focus on engineering.

But be warned, it has had its detractors, partly because of the sheer volume of work for the teaching staff and the lack of support to back up its delivery. (It is known by some teachers as the Curriculum for Excrescence!) Some parents have told us they feel somewhat confused and overwhelmed by the choice and feel that it would be better to concentrate resources. We would advise choose your school carefully.

Scottish Nationals, Highers and Advanced Highers

National courses have seven different levels; National 1 to 5 then Higher and Advanced Higher, but the buzz words that you will hear the most are Nat 4/5s and Highers as these are most likely to gain your child access to college and university.

So how does it work? Firstly, it’s important to remember that Scottish secondary education lasts for six years as opposed to seven in the rest of the UK. For the first three years of senior school, pupils follow what is called the Broad General Education. Then in fourth year (age 15/16) they will study for Nat 1 - 5s depending on what their attainment level in each subject is. (Nat 5 is for the more academic pupils and the norm for most academically selective independent schools).

In most schools a fourth year pupil would tend to sit Nat 4 or 5s. If they decide to stay on for a fifth year, they can sit more Nat 4 or 5s and progress to Highers, the qualification that gives them access to university.

If a pupil gets enough Highers by the end of fifth year they can theoretically have enough points to get them straight into university, but most opt to stay on for sixth year and do what’s called Advanced Highers. This last qualification is equivalent to the first year of study at a Scottish university and could conceivably gain them access to second year of the course of their choice, but realistically that rarely happens. A, B and C grades at Advanced Higher have the same UCAS tariff points as A*, A and B grades at A level, with an A at Higher level being given slightly more points than a C at A level.

Confused? You’re not alone!

How many Nat 5s may you sit?

This is a fairly contentious issue. Individual schools and councils decide how many Nat 5s are available on the curriculum so clearly this varies from region to region from school to school. In general, pupils in the state system will sit six or seven Nat 5s,whereas independent schools tend to do eight Nat 5s in one sitting. This is because they shorten the Broad General Education part of the curriculum and start teaching National qualifications in third year instead of fourth.


Courses can be taken in a wide range of subjects, from the purely academic, such as English and mathematics - to the purely vocational, such as accounting and mental health care.

Unit assessments

Each course is made up of three National units, each lasting 40 hours with an assessment at the end. Your child must pass all three assessments to sit the final exam, but on the plus side if they fail the final exam, their performance in the assessments is still recorded on the final SQA qualifications certificate, which means they have something to show for a year of study.

Nat 4s are internally assessed, but subject to verification by the SQA and are designed for less academic children, although they can progress to a Nat 5.

So it can be a complicated ride, but on the plus side, if your child is at school in Scotland and gets the necessary qualifications to progress to higher education, not only are they exempt from Scottish university fees, they are living in a country with more leading universities per head of population than virtually any other country in the world.


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