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The Curriculum for Excellence – which is Scotland’s own national curriculum - runs from 3-18 years old. So just as with primary schools, the education system in Scottish secondary schools is completely different from the other three nations in the UK.

What years do Scottish secondary schools cover?

Having completed seven years of primary school, children have six years of secondary school (known as high schools or academies) from S1 to S6 (equivalent to Y8 to Y13 in England).

What is the Curriculum for Excellence?

The idea behind the Curriculum for Excellence – which all Scottish state schools follow – is a broader, more skills based education. So less knowledge, facts and figures and more focus on skills for life and competencies that employers say they want. Some criticise it for having gone too far the other way, and for being overly complex.

The first stage of the Curriculum for Excellence is the Broad General Education (BGE), which caters for the early years (age 3) until the end of S3 (age 13/14) – so all of primary school and some of senior school. The senior phase curriculum follows on from the BGE and covers the remaining secondary years, from S4 to S6 (age 15-18).

Schools have the freedom to offer the senior phase in a range of different ways ie offering different subjects over different timescales. And unlike the national curriculum in the other three nations, there is more flexibility in this curriculum, allowing children (including those with special need) to progress at their own pace.

Age School year Stage of curriculum Assessments
4-11 P1-P7 Early/First/Second level SNSA
11-12 S1 Third/fourth level -
12-13 S2 Third/fourth level -
13-14 S3 Third/fourth level -
14-15 S4 Senior phase National 3/4/5
15-16 S5 Senior phase National 4/5; Higher
16-17 S6 Senior phase National 5; Higher; Advanced Higher

What subjects are studied at secondary level?

The following subjects (called curriculum areas) make up most of the key topics of the Curriculum for Excellence:

  • Literacy and English
  • Numeracy and maths
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Expressive arts
  • Modern languages
  • Religious and moral education
  • Sciences
  • Social studies
  • Technology

How are children tested at secondary level?

The senior phase is when pupils begin to sit Scottish national qualifications. The Scottish Qualification Authority, which sets these exams, does not specify the number of qualifications that schools should deliver.

Unlike in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – where children take GCSEs and A levels – students in Scotland sit:

  • National 4s and 5s (similar level to GCSE, taken in S3 and/or S4, which is roughly equivalent to English year 10/11)
  • Scottish Highers (similar level to the old AS levels in England, taken in S5, which is roughly equivalent to English year 12)
  • Scottish Advanced Highers (similar to A levels, taken in S6, equivalent to English year 13)

Because children may start school at a different age in Scotland - and the academic year runs from August to June - it’s difficult to compare year groups with the rest of the home nations exactly. But most children will be around 15 when they take Nationals.

They can then stay on in secondary school for two more years to take Highers (required for university applications) and Advanced Highers (equivalent to the first year of university and used for applying to enter the second year of university – pupils sit up to three and they are seen as excellent grounding for higher education).

What are the different types of school at secondary level?

Secondary schools: The majority of these are called either 'High Schools' and 'Academies'. Nearly all state secondary schools are run by the local authorities, and which one 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 area and a panel will decide if your child is the ‘most worthy’ out of all placing requests.

Denominational schools: Schools in Scotland which have a particular religious ethos are called denominational schools; most commonly they are Roman Catholic. These schools are operated by the state and have their own catchment areas. Denominational school admissions are managed by the local council in the same way that non-denominational schools are. Children do not have to come from a religious family to attend a denominational school but those that do may be given priority. Denominational schools operate like other schools though they may set aside special time for religious services and be visited routinely by faith leaders.

Special schools: Scottish special schools tend to deal with children who have very specific or severe additional support needs and include a number of residential schools. As with elsewhere in the UK, some special schools are run independently from the state, for example by charities, although the state may pay for a child to attend one of these if the family are unable to afford the fees. Many of Scotland's special schools are all-through.

Gaelic education: In Scotland, approximately half of all local authorities offer pupils the opportunity to be taught through the Gaelic language. A ‘Gaelic Medium Education’ (GME) catchment school will be available to select at registration. Where local provision is unavailable or oversubscribed, places maybe availablefrom neighbouring councils. 

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 offering A levels instead of Highers and Advanced Highers.

Do private schools follow the Curriculum for Excellence?

Some Scottish private secondary schools choose to offer A levels and so follow a curriculum closer to that which is offered south of the border. However, the Curriculum for Excellence is found in the majority of private schools.

When do children finish school in Scotland?

If you turn 16 between 1 March and 30 September you can leave school after 31 May of that year. If you turn 16 between 1 October and the end of February you can leave at the start of the Christmas holidays in that school year.

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

Schools are expected to deliver at least two periods of PE for all pupils between Secondary 1 and Secondary 4. Expressive arts is a key topic under the Curriculum for Excellence, and includes art and design, dance, drama and music. As in the other three nations, these subjects often get more time dedicated to them in private schools.

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