Response to Scottish Qualifications Reform

The Scottish secondary education system has gone through a period of major qualifications reform in the implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence. 

The changes have been designed to embed a range of higher order skills and attributes into the education system. There is much greater emphasis at an early age on interdisciplinary study, and the development of higher order skills including higher level critical thinking, research and investigation, extended essay writing, independent study, group work, and presentation skills. Higher levels of numeracy and literacy, and better preparation for both employment and further study underpin the thinking behind the changes, and there are five generic Skills for Learning, Life and Work which are developed through the broader curriculum.  The new and revised qualifications are summarised below.

Scottish Qualifications Framework levelNew Qualification nameFormer Qualification nameYear of introductionBroad equivalency to English qualifications
4National 4Standard Grade (General level)*

Intermediate 1**
2013-14GCSE (currently grades D-G)
5National 5Standard Grade (Credit level)*

Intermediate 2**
2013-14GCSE (currently grades A*-C)
6Higher (new)Higher***2014-15AS level
7Advanced Higher (new)Advanced Higher2015-16A level

* The last diet and certification of Standard Grades was in 2012-13.
** Intermediate 1 and 2 courses were being dual run with the new National 4 and 5 courses in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
*** The existing and new Higher were dual run in 2014-15 to enable students taking Intermediate 1 and 2 the opportunity to complete the Higher which sits within the appropriate qualifications hierarchy.

National 4

These are usually one-year school-based and assessed qualifications, which provide opportunities for students to gain added value in their subject by undertaking additional study and project work. They are assessed entirely through coursework, but to a framework set and externally quality assured by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA). It is graded as a pass/fail qualification.

National 5

These are usually one-year school-based qualifications, set and marked by SQA. Assessment is through a mix of coursework (using controlled assessment) and final examination – there is more of a balance between exam and controlled assessment than in the Standard Grade and Intermediate 2 (where all or much of the mark was on final examination).

Grades are A through to D. Students take between six and eight subjects, including English and Mathematics or Lifeskills Mathematics.

Individual students or whole school or Local Authority cohorts may be accelerated through to Higher/Advanced Higher, and therefore not take National 5 qualifications in some or any subjects. Where such “bypassing” of National 5 occurs, students still cover the National 5 syllabus but not the assessment. This will enable such students to engage earlier with the Higher syllabus.


These have historically been one-year qualifications but some candidates may take these qualifications over a more extended period. Question papers are set and marked by SQA. Grades are A-D. Most students take an average of five subjects, usually including English and Mathematics. Where approximately half of the existing Highers were externally assessed through a mix of coursework (using controlled assessment) and final examination, almost all of the new Higher subjects will be assessed in this way. Some students take their Highers in a single diet in S5, while others take “staggered” diets over S4-5, S5-6 or S4-6.

Advanced Higher

These have historically been one-year qualifications but some candidates may take these qualifications over a more extended period. Question papers are set and marked by SQA. Grades are A-D. Students at high-performing, academically-selective schools often take three Advanced Highers, but this covers only around 12% of all students taking Advanced Highers and only around 2% of the total S6 population. Many schools, including smaller rural schools and those where there is limited progression to Sixth Year, may have access to only one or two Advanced Highers (or none), and supplement their study by taking additional Higher subjects.


SQA has also developed a set of Award frameworks to allow students to demonstrate personal development, and to provide evidence that students have skills for Learning, Life and Work (literacy; numeracy; health and wellbeing; thinking skills; employability, enterprise and citizenship). Awards are designed to be interdisciplinary, suited to students across age and ability ranges, and are assessed internally in the school working to a framework established and externally quality assured by SQA. There is no external assessment or examination.

The Awards frameworks cover the following areas:

  • Modern Languages for Life and Work
  • Personal Achievement (Bronze/Silver/Gold)
  • Personal Development
  • Religion, Belief and Values
  • Wellbeing
  • Scottish Studies

The Awards incorporate the same range of skills that an IB student would get through the core skills in CAS (Community, Action, Service) or may also be offered through Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, Young Enterprise, or elements of the Welsh Baccalaureate core qualification.

Oxford’s response

Fundamentally, the approach that Oxford uses to assess Scottish applicants remains the same. The University recognises that the skills that the qualifications reforms seek to develop are important, particularly the emphasis on independent working, research and investigation, extended essay writing, and higher level critical thinking and analysis. Many of our subjects would also see the advantage in students being exposed to interdisciplinary study from an early age. The University encourages students to take full advantage of the value added opportunities available at National 4 level to develop and expand their awareness and understanding of their subjects.

We still expect our applicants to have three Advanced Highers with grades AAB unless there is strong evidence presented in the UCAS reference to demonstrate that the candidate’s school has not been able to offer or timetable enough Advanced Highers. Where this is the case, we then expect a student to supplement their two Advanced Highers taken in Year 6 with an additional Higher. Students would be expected to achieve AA grades in their Advanced Highers, and an A grade in their Higher (which is likely to be a subject that will not be their particular strength, as they will already have four or five Highers gained in year 5).

Tutors will not penalise students who have been accelerated through to Higher/Advanced Highers and therefore skipped taking examinations in National 5 subjects, but it would be helpful if the UCAS reference could explicitly state that this had occurred.