Education in Scotland is overseen by the Scottish Government and has a history of universal provision of public education, and the Scottish education system is distinctly different from those in the other countries of the United Kingdom. The Scotland Act 1998 gives the Scottish Parliament legislative control over all education matters, and the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 is the principal legislation governing education in Scotland. Traditionally, the Scottish system at secondary school level has emphasised breadth across a range of subjects, while the English, Welsh and Northern Irish systems have emphasised greater depth of education over a smaller range of subjects.

Following this, Scottish universities generally have courses a year longer (typically 4 years) than their counterparts elsewhere in the UK, though it is often possible for students to take more advanced specialised exams and join the courses at the second year. One unique aspect is that the ancient universities of Scotland issue a Master of Arts as the first degree in humanities. State schools are owned and operated by the local authorities which act as Education Authorities, and the compulsory phase is divided into primary school and secondary school (often called high school). Schools are supported in delivering learning and teaching by Education Scotland (formerly Learning and Teaching Scotland). There are also private schools across the country, although the distribution is uneven with such schools in 22 of the 32 Local Authority areas. At September 2011 the total pupil population in Scotland was 702,104, of which 31,425 pupils, or 4.5%, were being educated in independent schools.[3]

Qualifications at the secondary school and post-secondary (further education) level are provided by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which is the national awarding and accrediting body in Scotland, and delivered through various schools, colleges and other centres. Political responsibility for education at all levels is vested in the Scottish Parliament and the Learning Directorate.[4] Inspections and audits of educational standards are conducted by three bodies: Care Inspectorate inspects care standards in pre-school provision; Education Scotland (formerly Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education) for pre-school, primary, education, further and community education; with the Scottish office of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA Scotland) responsible for higher education.

In 2014, research by the Office for National Statistics found that Scotland was the most highly educated country in Europe and among the most well-educated in the world in terms of tertiary education attainment, above countries like Finland, Ireland and Luxembourg, with roughly 40% of Scots aged 16–64 educated to NVQ level 4 and above.[5]

School years

Pupils and Early Years Minister Adam Ingram, Education and Lifelong Learning Secretary Fiona Hyslop and Schools and Skills Minister Maureen Watt with pupils at Avenue End Primary Campus in Glasgow.

Children start primary school aged between 4½ and 5½ depending on when the child's birthday falls.[6] Scottish school policy places all those born between March of a given year and February of the following year in the same year group. Children born between March and August start school in August at between 5½ and 5 years old, and those born between September and February start school in the previous August at between age 4 years 11 months and 4½ years old. The Scottish system is the most flexible in the UK, however, as parents of children born between September and December can request a deferral for 1 year (not automatic, requires approval), whilst children born between January and February can opt to hold their child back a year and let them start school the following August. This usually allows those not ready for formal education to have an extra year at an early years centre (formarly known as nursery). (Funding is only available for children born in January and February).

Pupils remain at primary school for seven years. Then aged eleven or twelve, they start secondary school for a compulsory four years with the following two years being optional. In Scotland, pupils sit National 4/5 exams (previously Standard Grade or Intermediate exams) at the age of fifteen/sixteen, normally for between 6 and eight subjects including compulsory exams in English and Mathematics. A Science subject (Physics, Biology or Chemistry) and a Social Subject (Geography, History or Modern Studies) were also compulsory, but this was changed is accordance with the new curriculum. It is now required by the Scottish Parliament for students to have two hours of physical education a week; each school may vary these compulsory combinations. The school leaving age is generally sixteen (after completion of National 4/5s), after which students may choose to remain at school and study for Higher and/or Advanced Higher exams.

A small number of students at certain private, independent schools may follow the English system and study towards GCSE instead of National 4/5s (Standard Grades), and towards A and AS-Levels instead of (or alongside) Higher Grade and Advanced Higher exams. The International Baccalaureate has also been introduced in some independent schools.

The table below lists rough equivalences with the year system in the rest of the United Kingdom (For England and Wales, the equivalence given is for children born before 1 September; the equivalence for those born from September to February [December for deferred pupils] is given in brackets):

Scotland Age at start of school year Age at end of school year England and Wales Northern Ireland


2-3 3-4 Nursery Play School
Nursery 3-4 4-5 Nursery
Primary 1 4-5 5-6 Reception P1
Primary 2 5-6 6-7 Year 1 P2
Primary 3 6-7 7-8 Year 2 P3
Primary 4 7-8 8-9 Year 3 P4
Primary 5 8-9 9-10 Year 4 P5
Primary 6 9-10 10-11 Year 5 P6
Primary 7 10-11 11-12 Year 6 P7
S1 (First year) 11-12 12-13 Year 7 Year 8 (1st Year)
S2 (Second year) 12-13 13-14 Year 8 Year 9 (2nd Year)
S3 (Third year) 13-14 14-15 Year 9 Year 10 (3rd Year)
S4 (Fourth year) 14-15 15-16 Year 10 Year 11 (4th Year)
S5 (Fifth year) 15-16 16-17 Year 11 Year 12 (5th Year)
S6 (Sixth Year) 16-17 17-18 Year 12 Year 13 (L6th Year)
17-18 18-19 Year 13 Year 14 (U6th Year)

Access to early years centres, primary and secondary school

Government funded schools are free for children aged 5–19.[7] In many cases, this applies to children of international post-graduate students,[8] and other immigrants.

The age ranges specify the youngest age for a child entering that year and the oldest age for a child leaving that year. Playgroup can be described as a daycare centre for toddlers, then children may go on to attend an early years centre as soon as they have passed their third birthday, and progress to Primary 1 in the August of the year in which they turn five.

In general, the cut-off point for ages is the end of February, so all children must be of a certain age on 1 March to begin class in August.

All parents of children born between September and February (i.e. still 4 years old on the school start date) are entitled to defer entry to Primary School if they believe their child is not ready for school.

Only children whose birthdays fall in January or February will be considered for funding for a subsequent year at an early years centre, unless there are special circumstances.

Children may leave school once they reach their statutory school leaving date; this is dependent on date of birth. For children born between 1 March and 30 September, this date is 31 May of their 4th year of secondary school. For children born between 1 October and 28 February, the last day of June is the first date they may leave school if they have a placement at college and the school have signed the health & safety forms.

Which high school the children go to depends on the area where they live, known as the "catchment area", which has a specific high school that takes children who live in that area.

Parents can also apply for a placement request if they would like their child to attend a school outside their catchment area and a panel will decide if the child is the most worthy (out of all placing requests) to take one of the spaces left after all children from the catchment area have been taken.

The table below lists list the numbers of children, schools and teachers in all publicly funded schools:[9]

Children Schools Teachers pupil:teacher ratio
Early Years Education 102,871 2,504 1,288
Primary 377,372 2,056 22,905 16.5
Secondary 289,164 364 23,695 12.2
Special 6,984 149 2,020 3.5

Home education is also legal in Scotland. Parents wishing to home educate do not need the permission of the Local Authority unless the children are already registered at a school. There are no exact numbers available for children being educated at home in Scotland.[10]

Ministers responsible

Within the Scottish Government, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills has overall responsibility for education provision in Scotland. The Cabinet Secretary is assisted by three junior ministers, currently the Minister for Childcare and Early Years, the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science and the Minister for Employability and Training[11].

Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers overseeing Education in Scotland
Portfolio Minister Image Areas of Responsibility
Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills
(also serving as Deputy First Minister of Scotland)
John Swinney MSP John Swinney, Deputy First Minister.png School Standards
Quality and Improvement
School Infrastructures and Staffing
Educational Attainment
Teaching profession
Behaviour and anti-bullying measures
Named Person and Looked After policies
Youth Work
Early Years Education
Children's Services
Children's hearing
Minister for Childcare and Early Years Maree Todd MSP Maree Todd MSP - May 2016.jpg Adoption and fostering
Early Years
Child Protection
Children's Rights
Looked After Children
Protection of Vulnerable Groups
Social Services Workforce
Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Shirley Anne Sommerville.png Further education
Student Funding
STEM Subjects
Widening access
Minister for Employability and Training Jamie Hepburn MSP JamieHepburnMSP20110511.JPG Employment policy
Labour market strategy
Skills Development Scotland
Women's Employment
Youth Employment
Non-Advanced vocational skills

National Curriculum

In 2003, work began on an education reform programme, to produce a new Curriculum for Excellence that would replace existing guidance on the school curriculum.[12] Curriculum for Excellence was launched in Scottish secondary schools from school session 2012–2013.

In 2017, new reforms were introduced moving control over curriculum and schools more towards head teachers and parents.[13]

School qualifications

Kilmarnock Academy is the only school in Scotland to have educated two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates and one of only two schools worldwide to have educated more than one

Progression in Qualifications

S4 S5 S6
National 3 National 4 National 5
National 4 National 5 Higher
National 5 Higher Advanced Higher

The vast majority of Scottish pupils take Scottish Qualifications Certificate qualifications provided by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). Generally, most pupils take National 4/5s (previously Standard Grades, but some schools offered Intermediates instead) in S3-S4, and Highers in S5. For those who wish to remain at school for the final year (S6), more Highers and Advanced Highers (formerly CSYS) in S6 can be taken. Intermediate 1 and Intermediate 2 qualifications – were intended to be roughly equivalent to General and Credit Level Standard Grades respectively, but in practice (although may vary from subject to subject), Intermediate 1 was easier than General, and Intermediate 2 harder than Credit – can also be taken in lieu of any of the aforementioned qualifications.

Pupils can go to university at the end of S5, as Highers provide the entry requirements for Scottish universities where degrees are normally four years long; however, recently it is more common for students to remain until S6, taking further Highers and/or taking Advanced Highers. The majority of English universities, the most popular choice for Scottish students who wish to study university degrees outside of Scotland, require Advanced Higher qualification levels as these are deemed by the English universities to be most similar to A-levels.

All educational qualifications in Scotland are part of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework.

Scottish Attainment Challenge

In 2015, the Scottish Government launched the Scottish Attainment Challenge which aims to achieve equity in educational outcomes throughout Scotland. The Scottish Government envisages equity being achieved by ensuring every child has the same opportunity to succeed, with a particular focus on closing the poverty-related attainment gap. It is underpinned by national Scottish educational policies such as Curriculum for Excellence, Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) as well as the National Improvement Framework[14]. The attainment challenge focuses and accelerates targeted improvement activity in literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing in specific areas of Scotland, known as "challenge authorities" (those councils with a higher percentage of children growing up in poverty and deprivation). At a cost of £750 million to the Scottish Government through the Attainment Scotland Fund, the challenge is a targeted initiative focused on supporting pupils in the local authorities of Scotland with the highest concentrations of deprivation. Currently, the nine 'Challenge Authorities' are Glasgow City Council, Dundee City Council, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire, North Ayrshire, Clackmannanshire, North Lanarkshire, East Ayrshire and Renfrewshire[15].

On 1 February 2017 the share each primary and secondary school will receive for the academic year 2017–2018 from the Scottish Government’s £120 million Pupil Equity Funding was announced by the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills John Swinney. This funding is provided through the Attainment Scotland Fund and allocated directly to schools, targeted at those children most affected by the poverty related attainment gap[16].

Secondary school naming

Marr College in Troon, South Ayrshire, carries the name College rather than High School or Academy

There is not a set name for secondary schools in Scotland, but whatever they might be called, with just a few specific exceptions in mainly rural or island authorities, state secondary schools in Scotland are fully comprehensive and non-selective. Amongst the state-run secondary schools:

  • 188 are nominally High Schools. These are spread across the country. Almost all Catholic secondaries are high schools, with the majority of the other names being non-denominational schools. For example, in West Dunbartonshire, the non-denominational schools are Vale of Leven, Dumbarton, and Clydebank Academies while the Catholic schools are Our Lady & Saint Patrick's High School and St Peter the Apostle's High School.
  • 131 are nominally Academies. These are spread across the country but are in high concentration in North-East Scotland and Ayrshire, an example is Aboyne Academy. There are also three Royal Academies, in Irvine, North Ayrshire; Tain; and Inverness.
  • 15 are nominally Secondary Schools (colloquially abbreviated to "secondaries").
  • 14 are nominally Grammar Schools. Most of these schools were defined as grammar schools under a previous (now dissolved) system but their names remain. Popular areas for grammar schools are Argyll and Bute, East Lothian and South Lanarkshire.
  • 13 are simply Schools. These schools cater for Primary as well as Secondary school children. They are found in rural areas or islands.
  • 8 are Junior High Schools. These schools are found exclusively in the Orkney and Shetland Islands. They cater for school children from P1 to S4.
  • 4 are Colleges. These include Madras College (in St Andrews, Fife), Marr College (in Troon, South Ayrshire) and St Joseph's College (in Dumfries, Dumfries and Galloway).

Other schools include The Community School of Auchterarder, Auchterarder, Perth and Kinross; The Nicolson Institute, Stornoway, Western Isles; North Walls Community School on Hoy, Orkney Islands and Wester Hailes Education Centre, Wester Hailes, Edinburgh. All of these are, equally, fully comprehensive non-selective schools, differing only in designation from all other state secondary schools in Scotland.

School provision

Religion in Schools

The vast majority of schools are non-denominational, and include the parish schools, pioneered by the Church of Scotland and other Protestant Churches, which became state schools in 1872. Religious education is taught in non-denominational schools and in denominational schools. Of over 2,500 schools in Scotland there are 366 state schools which are Roman Catholic, three Episcopalian and one Jewish.The Education (Scotland) Act 1918 brought Roman Catholic schools within the State education system, ensuring the promotion of a Roman Catholic ethos within such schools.[17]

Vocational education

Vocational education is provided in Further Education Colleges and through apprenticeships. Due to the growing surplus of university graduates in many fields of study, along with that of lower level apprentices, higher level apprenticeships are seen as providing the lowest risk of unemployment or underemployment. Skills Development Scotland has introduced Graduate Level Apprenticeships in order to promote this option.[18]

Music education

Music Education is available at several levels. Formal music education begins at 4½ years and can progress as high as postgraduate studies. Music Education can take place within a Scottish Music school; through a music service or privately.

Scottish Gaelic medium education

Some schools in Scotland provide education given in the Scottish Gaelic language. They are mainly located in the main cities of Scotland and in areas with higher amounts of Gaelic speakers. Gaelic medium education is becoming increasingly popular throughout Scotland, and the number of pupils who are in Gaelic medium education at primary school level has risen from 24 in 1985, to 2500 in the 2012–13 school year.[19]

Higher Education in Scotland

The Main Building of Queen Margaret University

There are fifteen universities in Scotland and three other institutions of higher education which have the authority to award academic degrees.[20] The oldest is St. Andrews, which was founded in 1413. Three other "ancient universities", Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, date from before 1600.[21] The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) gained full university status in 2011, having been created through the federation of 13 colleges and research institutions across the Highlands and Islands, a process that began in 2001.[22]

All Scottish universities have the power to award degrees at all levels: undergraduate, taught postgraduate, and doctoral. Education in Scotland is controlled by the Scottish Government under the terms of the Scotland Act 1998. The minister responsible for higher education is the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, currently Angela Constance MSP of the Scottish National Party.[23] University status in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom today is conferred by the Privy Council which takes advice from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.[24][25]

All Scottish universities are public universities and funded by the Scottish Government (through its Scottish Funding Council[26]) and financial support is provided for Scottish-domiciled students by the Student Awards Agency for Scotland. Students ordinarily resident in Scotland or the European Union do not pay tuition fees for their first undergraduate degree, but tuition fees are charged for those from the rest of the United Kingdom. All students are required to pay tuition fees for postgraduate education (e.g. MSc, PhD), except in certain priority areas funded by the Scottish Government, or if another source of funding can be found (e.g. research council studentship for a PhD). A representative body called Universities Scotland works to promote Scotland's universities, as well as six other higher education institutions.[27]

The university sector in Scotland had a total income of £3.5 billion in 2014/15 with the Scottish Government giving approximately £623 million in funding for individual university student support. The Scottish Funding Council contributing £1.1 billion of public money to the fifteen universities, this was a six per cent reduction since 2010/11.[28]

St Andrews students in undergraduate gowns

In 2014–15, approximately 232,570 students studied at universities or institutes of higher education in Scotland, of which 56% were female and 44% male, with 66% being domiciled in Scotland, 12% from the rest of the United Kingdom, 9% from the EU and the remaining 13% being international students. Of all these, approximately 76% were studying for their first degree (i.e. undergraduate level) and 24% for a taught postgraduate degree (primarily a master's degree) or a doctoral research degree (primarily PhD). The remainder were mostly on other programmes such as Higher National Diploma.[28] 16,000 students were studying in Scotland with The Open University via distance-learning, and the Open University teaches 40 per cent of Scotland's part-time undergraduates.[29]

In the 2016–17 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, five Scottish universities are among the top 200 worldwide: University of Edinburgh (at 27), University of Glasgow (at 88), University of St. Andrews (at =110), University of Dundee (at =180), and the University of Aberdeen (at =188).[30]

History of education in Scotland

For information about the education system in Scotland in the past, see History of education in Scotland.

See also


  1. ^ "Expediture on School Education in Scotland, 2006" (PDF). Scottish Executive. 19 January 2006. Retrieved 24 July 2009. 
  2. ^ Scottish Budget Spending Review 20§§, Scottish Government
  3. ^ Scottish independent schools 'Pupil Number Comparisons by Local Authority Area 2011/12' http://www.scis.org.uk/assets/files/2011%20Local%20Authority%20comparisons%20by%20region.pdf[permanent dead link] accessed 21 February 2012
  4. ^ "About: People: Learning Directorate". Scottish Government. Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  5. ^ ITV (5 June 2014). "Scotland 'most highly educated country in Europe'". Retrieved 8 June 2014. 
  6. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". Scottish Government. 19 December 2013. Retrieved 24 August 2014. 
  7. ^ UKCISA – 404
  8. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 May 2013. Retrieved 10 September 2012. 
  9. ^ "Summary Statistics for Schools in Scotland, No.4 ¦ 2013 Edition" (PDF). Scottish Government. 11 February 2014. Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  10. ^ Education Scotland, Home Education Archived 1 October 2014 at the Wayback Machine.
  11. ^ https://beta.gov.scot/about/who-runs-government/cabinet-and-ministers/cabinet-secretary-education-skills/
  12. ^ "How was the curriculum developed: Process of change: Timeline About Curriculum for Excellence". Education Scotland. Archived from the original on 26 August 2014. Retrieved 24 August 2014. 
  13. ^ "SNP and Tories back John Swinney's school reforms". www.scotsman.com. Retrieved 2017-07-22. 
  14. ^ http://www.gov.scot/Topics/Education/Schools/Raisingeducationalattainment
  15. ^ http://www.gov.scot/Topics/Education/Schools/Raisingeducationalattainment
  16. ^ http://www.gov.scot/Topics/Education/Schools/Raisingeducationalattainment
  17. ^ http://www.gov.scot/Topics/Education/Schools/FAQs.  Missing or empty title= (help)
  18. ^ Evans, John (26 October 2016). "Non-graduate routes to skilled employment are more important than ever". Common Space. Retrieved 31 October 2016. Labour market intelligence shows that higher level apprenticeships are still evidently worthwhile qualifications to pursue, increasing individual earning power and providing a boost for the economy. 
  19. ^ "Our Work: Gaelic education". Bord na Gaidhlig. Retrieved 12 April 2015. 
  20. ^ "Briefing". Universities Scotland. Archived from the original on 23 July 2011. Retrieved 1 April 2011. 
  21. ^ M. Gardiner, Modern Scottish Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), ISBN 0748620273, p. 83.
  22. ^ "UHI is awarded taught degree awarding powers". Highland Council. 26 June 2008. Retrieved 29 June 2014. 
  23. ^ "Cabinet Secretary for Education & Lifelong Learning: Angela Constance MSP". Scottish Government. Retrieved 12 April 2015. 
  24. ^ "The Privy Council, Standard Note: SN/PC/3708" (PDF). The Privy Council. 5 July 2005. pp. 5–6. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 December 2011. Retrieved 6 July 2010. 
  25. ^ "Degree-awarding powers and university title". Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). 29 November 2012. Retrieved 26 July 2014. 
  26. ^ "Education and Training: Universities and Colleges: Universities". The Scottish Government. 16 July 2014. Retrieved 25 August 2014. 
  27. ^ "Universities Scotland". Retrieved 7 September 2010. 
  28. ^ a b "Audit of higher education in Scottish universities" (PDF). Retrieved 18 November 2016. 
  29. ^ "The Open University in Scotland". The Open University. Retrieved 6 July 2010. 
  30. ^ "World University Rankings 2016-17". Retrieved 18 November 2016. 

External links