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The education system in Scotland is completely different from the rest of the UK. Instead of a national curriculum (as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland), Scotland has a Curriculum for Excellence which covers education from 3-18 years old.

At what age do children attend primary school in Scotland?

Children in Scotland complete seven years of primary school, starting in P1 (the equivalent of reception in England), going up to P7 (the equivalent of year 7 in England).

Primary education covers three of the five defined levels within the Scottish education system: early (pre-school years and P1); first (to the end of P4); and second (to the end of P7). The remaining two levels are covered at secondary level: third and fourth (S1 to S3); and senior phase (S4 to S6, college).

It is hard to draw parallels between English and Scottish year groups because children in Scotland usually start primary school when they are aged between 4-and-a-half and 5-and-a-half years old, depending on when their birthday is. Also, the academic year is different – running from mid to late August through to June.

What is the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland?

The Curriculum for Excellence – which all state schools follow – aims to provide a much broader education which equips your child with other life skills beyond the usual maths formulae or historical facts and figures. But some say there is an over-emphasis on the development of skills as a substitute for the accumulation of knowledge. It has also been criticised for being fiendishly complicated.

The Curriculum for Excellence is broken into two stages. The Broad General Education (BGE) caters for the early years (age 3) until the end of S3 (age 13/14) – so it covers all of primary school and some of senior school. The Senior Phase (link to article) follows on from the BSG and covers the remaining secondary years.

The BGE is divided into the five defined curriculum levels mentioned above (early, first, second, third and fourth) across eight curriculum areas: expressive arts (art and design, dance, drama and music), health and wellbeing, languages (including English, Gàidhlig and Gaelic learners and modern languages), mathematics, religious and moral studies, sciences, social studies and technologies.

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.

Age School year Stage of curriculum Assessments
4-5 P1 Early level P1 SNSA
5-6 P2 First level  
6-7 P3 First level  
7-8 P4 First level P4 SNSA
8-9 P5 Second level  
9-10 P6 Second level  
10-11 P7 Second level P7 SNSA
11-17 S1-S6 Third/Fourth level; Senior phase National 3/4/5; Higher; Advanced Higher

Different types of Scottish primary school

State primaries: The vast majority of primary schools are run by the local authorities. Which primary 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.

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. 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. You make a special placing request for one of these schools, which 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 these, covering 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.

How are children tested at primary level?

The Scottish National Standardised Assessments (SNSAs) are online standardised assessments in literacy and numeracy. Introduced in 2017, they are taken by all children in Scotland in P1, P4, P7 (and in S3 in senior school), with the aim of providing diagnostic information to support teachers' professional judgement.

Children take the assessments once during the school year, the time of which schools and teachers decide. They are completed online and marked automatically. There is no pass mark and they cannot be failed.

  • P1 children take two SNSA assessments: one in literacy and one in numeracy.
  • P4 children take three SNSA assessments: one in reading, one in writing and one in numeracy.
  • P7 children take three SNSA assessments: one in reading, one in writing and one in numeracy.

Children do not take the reading, writing and numeracy assessments all in one sitting. A good job as each assessment takes around 45 minutes (although there is no time limit), with 30 and 41 questions, depending on the year group and subject. If a child struggles with questions, the next questions get easier; if a child gets them right, the questions get more challenging.

The results are given to your child’s teacher, but not to the child. The teacher uses them to form part of their overall assessment and may be mentioned in parent-teacher meetings.

Do private schools follow the Curriculum for Excellence?

A handful of independent schools in Scotland follow something closer to the the English system; for the rest, it’s the Curriculum for Excellence.

How much time is given to sport, music and art?

Scottish primary schools have to deliver at least two hours of PE per week to all pupils.

Both art and music are taught as part of ‘expressive arts’ in Scottish primary schools (with expressive arts being one of eight curriculum areas of the Curriculum for Excellence). But a survey by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS) in 2021 found that 15 per cent of Scottish primary teachers say music is ‘non-existent’ or ‘practically non-existent’ in their schools. Nearly one in 10 of the teachers surveyed responded ‘never’ when asked how regularly children in their class took part in music lessons, although the largest proportion (33 per cent) said music lessons took part weekly.

As in the other three nations, private schools often choose to deliver more hours of teaching in these areas, and by specialist teachers in specialist teaching areas.

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