Moving to Scotland can be an overwhelming experience. Aside from finding a new home, there are numerous other factors to consider, including securing a new job, opening a bank account, and above all else, finding suitable schools. Here’s everything you need to know about the Scottish education system.

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Despite a resurgent campaign for independence over the last few years, Scotland continues to be politically and geographically intertwined with the UK. However, if you’re moving to Scotland with children, you may be surprised to know that the Scottish education system differs greatly from the schooling system in the UK.

Understanding Scottish schools

The Scottish education system is based on the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), but the Scottish government only sets guidelines for the curriculum, giving schools the freedom to make their own decisions about what to teach.

The system has five levels:

  • Early (pre-school and P1)
  • First (to the end of P4)
  • Second (to the end of P7)
  • Third and Fourth (S1 to S3)
  • Senior (S4 to S6, college)

The curriculum is broken into broad stages: A general phase from early years to the end of S3 and a senior phase for pupils studying for qualifications (from S4 to S6). Children are expected to complete seven years of education at primary school (from P1 to P7) and a further six at secondary school (from S1 to S6).

Many independent schools in Scotland offer GCSE, IGCSE, A-Level or, in some instances, the International Baccalaureate (IB) instead of the Scottish CfE.

In South Africa, a National Senior Certificate is afforded to all students who complete grade 12. This is often spoken of as an equivalent to an A-Level certificate, and is required for entry into university. However, it should be noted that A-Levels are a bit more advanced than the National Senior Certificate in South Africa. Students who want to study in the UK should make sure their NSC will be accepted at the school they are applying for. Some South African schools also offer advanced certificates such as IGCSE, AS and A-Levels.

What is the Curriculum of Excellence?

The CfE is complicated and this has attracted some criticism in the past. The overall aim is to provide a much broader education, which not only teaches a wide variety of subjects, but equips children with other valuable life skills.

Currently, the curriculum is broken into two stages:

The Broad General Education

The Broad General Education (BGE) provides a rounded education from the early years (age three) 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. They are:

  • Expressive arts
  • Health and well-being
  • 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 and accessible, allowing each child 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. In order to get into university, your child will need to sit Nat 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers, which also happen to be the only exams that are externally examined.

Highers function as a passport into university (similarly to South Africa’s National Senior Certificate awarded after completing grade 12). Typically, pupils might sit up to three Advanced Highers. (These are equivalent to the 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, i.e. offering different subjects over different timescales. The Scottish Qualification Authority does not specify the number of qualifications that schools should deliver.

Scottish school starting age

Scotland requires that:

  • Children born between March and August start school in the August following their fifth birthday.
  • Children born between September and February begin school in the August before their fifth birthday.

However, parents of children born between September and December or January and February can ask the local education authority to defer their child’s start date. Deferral is not automatic and is subject to approval.

Types of schools in Scotland

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 a 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 funded 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 children 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 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.

Catchment areas

Scotland is divided into catchment areas. Priority for a place in a school is based on your home address and not attendance at an associated school or nursery class.

Denominational schools can have large catchment areas that overlap those of non-denominational schools. Denominational schools are open to pupils of all denominations, all faiths, and none, but the way each council manages pupil intake for these schools can vary.

You can apply for a placement request if you want your child to go to a school outside your catchment area. However, this is subject to panel approval. If you plan to send your child to an independent private school, the location of your home is less of a concern.

Your path into Scotland

As a global team, we know what it’s like to move to a new country. Our experience has helped us establish relocation packages tailored towards families with children of school-going age and are planning to emigrate to Scotland. These packages include the setting up of a bank account, assistance in obtaining an NI number, great travel and entertainment discounts, as well as all the information you need to hit the ground running as soon as you land. We’re here to make every aspect of your move more convenient.


Are you looking to start your new life in Scotland? get in touch with one of our consultant to find out what the options are for you and your family. Email us at 1stcontact@sableinternational.com or call us on+44 (0) 20 7759 7536.

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