Is The Scottish Education System In Jeopardy?

I’ve lived in Scotland for ages but I still don’t understand the Scottish education system.

Most of the UK has GCSEs and A Levels but Scotland has Nationals (1-5), Highers and Advanced Highers.

Before that they had Standard Grade and Intermediate as well. Pretty confusing!

They study a broader range of subjects at each level. Whereas in the rest of the UK pupils specialise more as they go through school.

It means universities in Scotland offer four year undergraduate courses instead of three.

I suspect that’s because pupils aren’t at the same level as their counterparts in the rest of the UK. At least, that’s the experience I’ve had.

I studied a Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Edinburgh in what feels like the Stone Age. Well, it was the early nineties in any case!

I spent my first year rehashing most of the stuff I’d already learnt at A Level.

It did mean it was a easy year although I’m not sure how sober I was for many parts of it.

Pisa Tests

The Programme for International Student Assessment’s (Pisa) recent education rankings for the UK aren’t great.

We’re now lagging behind many other countries in maths, reading and science.

Scottish pupils’ performance has declined in the 15 years that they’ve taken part in assessments.

There are surprising dips in standards for Wales and Northern Ireland too though.

Only England is just about maintaining standards.

Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) figures
Source: BBC

University Rankings

It’s good to see that the University of Edinburgh is in the world’s top 30 World University Rankings.

Assuming we’re still in Scotland by the time my kids leave school, I hope they could follow in my footsteps if they wanted to.

I wonder if the Scottish Government’s discriminatory stance in relation to university places will be around by then.

It means my kids might get a free university education in Scotland. Although it’s a bit of a lottery because those places have a quota.

If we move south of the border they’d have to pay tuition fees in Scottish universities even though they were born in Scotland.

And even EU students can get free tuition in Scotland so it seems unfair to charge those from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I guess they think fewer people will come to Scotland to study from the EU.

But they could be flooded with applicants from the rest of the UK if they had to offer them free places too.

Best Of Both Worlds

To a certain extent we’re shielded from the Scottish education system.

That’s because my wife works at an independent school and my kids are lucky enough to attend the school.

It means they get to do GCSEs and A Levels which are more familiar to the outside world and better respected.

Unfortunately the school still has to follow parts of the Scottish education system. We are subject to GIRFEC and the controversial Named Person scheme.

I know we will move back to England since my wife is ambitious and wants to move on in her career.

Independent schools in England are more desirable to us. Their boarding standards and systems are much more developed than in Scotland.

If that happens I would consider putting the kids through state run schools.

It would give us a healthier bank balance with me being at home.

I also think many states schools south of the border can give as good an education as independent schools can.


What Will Be Will Be

My wife and I didn’t go to an independent school and we turned out fine.

I’m grateful that we are able to send the kids to an independent school though.

Particularly because of the hearing and speech issues that my daughter experiences.

All I want is that my kids do their best in school. Although we’re giving them the best opportunity in life we can. But you never know what the future holds.

I brought us back up to Scotland in 2005 because I loved the place and wanted to move back ever since I left in 1997.

Now it’s me who most wants to leave again because of the threat of Scottish secession from the UK and Brexit.

Who knows what the future holds but I’m pretty certain it won’t be in Scotland for us.

Is The Scottish Education System Still Fit For Purpose?

What do you think about the education system in Scotland compared to the rest of the UK?

What are your thoughts on the difference in the systems offered?

If you’re somewhere else in the world, how does yours compare?

  • Interesting article Tim.

    As someone from Scotland, I am familiar with the Scottish education system. I am aware they do O levels and A levels in England, but I don’t know what this means in the grand scale of things.

    You noted that you had to redo a lot of the subjects you had already studied at school. I suspect this occurs with certain subjects.

    Things may be a little different now as I left high school in the mid 1990s.

    At the end of fourth year you sit standard grades.

    At the end of fifth year you sit higher grades.

    In sixth year you can sit more higher grades or choose to do further studying with certain subjects. This is know as Six Year Studies (SYS).

    Again, I’m not sure if things are still handled this way.

    I started sixth year, but I decided to leave early for university.

    Like you, I found that I was going over a lot of the things I had studied before. The course I did was “Maths, Statistics and Finance”. As I had did six year studies Maths for a month or two, I had to go over some of the stuff I had already learned. I think it makes sense for them to set up courses that assume most students have only did the Maths higher and not SYS.

    With regards to the finance side of things, the first year was a breeze for me as I did an accounting higher. That was not a popular higher to do so the university course was prepared assuming that no one knew anything about accounting. This meant that I had done already done everything that was taught that year.


    • It sounds as though the education systems in Scotland and the rest of the UK are more similar than I thought Kevin. At least around the time we were both at school in any case. I finished school in 1991 and came up to Edinburgh to study the same year.

      The Scottish Government introduced Nationals 1-5 to replace Standard Grades and Advanced Highers to replace SYS. Whether that was necessary or made any improvements I guess comes down to statistics and their interpretation. I still don’t fully understand the system as it stands now though.

      I was surprised at how the UK as a whole performed in the Pisa Tests. Sometimes politicians getting involved in education can be a bad thing if they don’t listen to the teaching staff on the ground. I’m thinking of people like Michael Gove here. He was terrible for the education system.

      One thing that I’ve found over the years is that things tend to even out after you leave education in any case. It then becomes more about experience rather than the education you’ve received. In some circumstances, it can be an advantage not to go to university and get started in the working environment.

      I appreciate you sharing your first hand experience Kevin. It’s interesting that we had a similar experience in our first year at university.

      • I strongly believe in education being free for everyone, but I also think that a lot of people who go to university shouldn’t go.

        I went to university because I thought that’s what I had to do. I later returned to do a post graduate diploma.

        In hindsight, I wished i hadn’t went. I had good grades at school so everyone pushes you in that direction, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that age and the career guidance councillor at our school was hopeless. I’ve never had to use anything I’ve learned at university so I think that I would have been better going travelling and learning a new language. When I returned I would have had a language under my belt, maturity to take university more seriously, and a better idea of what I wanted to do in life.

        I think the best thing you can give kids is a good work ethic. That will help them in life more than any paper qualification will as they will strive towards goals.

        • It would be good if education could be free for everyone. With an ageing population to look after though it may cost too much in the long run.

          I know that it falls down in Scotland with free university places too because there’s a quota system. Once that’s full there’s no more free places regardless of how much potential a candidate has. Those free places are up for grabs from the rest of the EU (excluding England, Wales and N Ireland of course) as well as Scotland.

          My kids are only 8 and 6 so we’re trying to save money in Junior ISAs for them whenever we can in case they decide they want to go to university. I don’t plan to push either of them in that direction though.

          I agree that many people who go to university probably shouldn’t. I studied a Bachelor of Music degree and had planned to go into teaching. When I finished it though I decided against it and ended up in insurance and then corporate pensions. I’m one of those who probably shouldn’t have gone! Equally though I was 100% convinced I wanted to go into teaching.

          I hope we’re giving our kids a good work ethic. My wife works very hard and I try my best as a stay at home dad! We’ve got the opportunity to send the kids to an independent school as my wife is a Director at the school. Something I thought would never happen in a million years as we’re both from very modest backgrounds.

You may also like

Follow Me!