The life chances of young people in Scotland: evidence review

Evidence review commissioned by the First Minister's Independent Advisor on Poverty and Inequality.

Context: Education and training in Scotland

School education

The provision of education is the responsibility of local authorities. This includes all aspects of education from school buildings to the delivery of the curriculum. Education is compulsory between age 5 and 16. Local authorities decide the best structure of schooling to meet children's needs, but usually children spend seven years in primary school (P1-P7, age 5 to 12) and at least four years in secondary school (S1-S4, age 12-16). Pupils can then leave school at 16 or stay on for one or two more years (S5 and S6).

The Scottish 'Curriculum for Excellence' (CfE) seeks to create a single, coherent curriculum for all children and young people from the ages of 3 to 18. Students are not selected onto different tracks but have the opportunity to study a range of subjects according to the entitlements of CfE. The framework includes a 'broad general education' from age 3 to the end of S3 (age 15) and then more specialisation in working towards taking National Qualifications in the senior phase (S4-S6 in school, ages 16-18). Increased emphasis is placed on inter-disciplinary learning, skills development and encouraging personal achievement. CfE is intended to foster four capacities in all young people: successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors.

The purpose of the broad general education phase is to develop the knowledge, skills, attributes and capabilities of the four capacities of CfE. It is designed to provide the breadth and depth of education to develop flexible and adaptable young people with the knowledge and skills they will need to thrive now and in the future. The Senior Phase then offers young people the opportunity to extend and deepen their learning as they build a portfolio of qualifications. These are undertaken not only in schools but also through colleges and third sector organisations.

Assessment during the Senior Phase is primarily based on SQA qualifications, alongside other benchmarked qualifications and wider achievement awards. Qualifications in Scotland are based on the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). There are 12 levels in the framework, SCQF levels 1 to 7 are covered by school education (see below).

Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) levels:
Level 7 Advanced Higher at A-C
Level 6 Higher at A-C
Level 5 Intermediate 2 at A-C; National 5 at A-C; Standard Grade (Credit)
Level 4 Intermediate 1 at A-C; National 4; Standard Grade (General)
Level 3 Access 3; National 3; Standard Grade (Foundation)
Level 2 Access 2; National 2

Highers (SCQF level 6, generally taken in S5/S6), sometimes along with Advanced Highers (SCQF level 7, usually taken in S6), are the qualifications required for entry into higher education.

16+ Learning Choices is an offer by local authorities and their partners to all young people that entitles them to continue to develop their skills in whatever type of provision is best suited to their needs and aspirations. It aims to ensure that every young person has an appropriate offer of learning in the Senior Phase of their education before their planned school leaving date. Young people might stay at school in S5-6, go to further or higher education, take part in a national training programme, volunteer, get a job or engage in community-based learning. Career information, advice and guidance is available for all young people - with more for those who need it most.

Further and higher education

Scotland's Higher Education Institutions provide higher education courses at sub-degree, undergraduate and postgraduate level. Scotland's colleges offer a more diverse curriculum - including vocational, further, and higher education (mainly Higher National Certificate (HNC) and Higher National Diploma (HND), but also including a limited amount of degree provision) - to a diverse range of people and communities. Young people who leave school in S4 or S5 can continue their senior phase at college, studying for SQA or vocational qualifications, whilst those who have already gained qualifications can study for more advanced qualifications at further or higher education level. College students taking further education courses may progress in due course to higher education courses including HNC/HND courses or articulating to university. Because college activity encompasses the full spectrum of learning levels and modes of study, colleges are by nature more generalist than universities.


Email: Catriona Rooke,

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
Regent Road

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