Skip to main content

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.

Subjects

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.

 

Most popular Good Schools Guide articles


  • Special educational needs introduction

    Need help? Perhaps you suspect your child has some learning difficulty and you would like advice on what you should do. Or perhaps it is becoming clear that your child's current school is not working for him or her, and you need help to find a mainstream school which has better SEN provision, or to find a special school which will best cater for your child's area of need. Our SEN consultancy team advises on both special schools, and the mainstream schools with good SEN support, from reception through to the specialist colleges for 19+. Special Educational Needs Index

  • 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 in what 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…

  • 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…

  • 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.

  • Uni in the USA... and beyond

    The British guide to great universities from Harvard to Hong Kong. We tell you how to choose, how to apply, how to pay. Why study in the US? Ask the US-UK Fulbright Commission... Ask the US-UK Fulbright Commission who report that you're in good company: the US is the top destination for international students worldwide.  In fact, over 11,000 British students chose the States for their studies last year. Read more Scholarships for International Students Here's where you click to receive our giant pdf on US university scholarships for international students, covering how to find financial aid and how... Read more Can I afford it? America might proclaim…


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.

1986 and all that: a brief history of The Good Schools Guide

 
 

National School Offer Day 16th April 2019. Didn't get the school you wanted? 'Don't panic': download our helpful pdf. Click here