Image of the Forth Bridge in Scotland

 by Mari Higginbotham
, posted On 7 Aug '21
 Scottish and UK Recruitment Manager at Heriot-Watt University

A school and college guide to the education system in Scotland. Including an introduction to qualifications and university opportunities

A guide to the secondary school education system in Scotland

In Scotland, we have always done things a little bit differently when it comes to education. In the final years of secondary school, students can sit a range of qualifications suited to their ability. These start with National 4 and National 5 qualifications (similar to GCSE level) in S4 and, sometimes, S5 - and go on to Highers which are our typical university entry level qualifications. Most students sit up to five Highers in one year, starting from S5, compared to the three A-Levels elsewhere in the UK.

More advanced students can go on to Advanced Highers in their final year (S6). These are required for Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary degrees, but not typically for other subjects. They can also study a mix of Highers and Advanced Highers depending on what they have already achieved and what they want to do next. Advanced Higher students also have the opportunity to benefit from advanced entry into the second year of a degree in a related subject.

As you will see, the number of qualifications students can study means they have access to a broad range of subjects, which often increases their options after school. One pupil who wants to study a Science degree can also choose a Language and Music qualification at Higher Level as well as the Sciences because they enjoy those subjects. If students don’t know what they want to do after school, they would be encouraged to keep their subject choices broad - not to limit their options later on.

A guide to the university system in Scotland

Typically a degree in Scotland is four years long and is called an Honours degree. With the exception of professional qualifications, the first two years usually offer breadth of study, with the final two years providing the specialisation in their subject.

At Heriot-Watt University for instance, we have a common first year for Accounting and Finance, Business and Economics, giving students a strong background knowledge to draw upon after graduation. It also offers more choice throughout their studies; we often see students switch degrees during their four years and graduate in a different subject.

What does this mean for A-Level (and equivalent) students interested in university opportunities in Scotland?

Typically A-Level students apply to the first year of a degree in Scotland, however those who have A-Levels with strong grades in related subjects should also consider advanced entry into year two.

This means their degree would take three years to complete, just the same as elsewhere in the UK. These two points of entry from A-Level, with different entry requirements, means there is a lot of flexibility on offer for A-Level students looking to study in Scotland.

Teachers, careers colleagues and support staff: request your FREE UniTasterDays Teachers' Guide to University brochure.

This brochure has been produced by in collaboration with HELOA - to support the university guidance that is provided in secondary schools and colleges.

Editorial has been provided by over 35 colleagues at universities and higher education institutions throughout the UK. On topics covering how to support students with their university decisions, university events, widening participation & fair access, UCAS applications (including writing school references) and more. It also includes the key student finance facts from Martin Lewis.

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