Most students in the UK will spend most of their secondary school years preparing for the GCSEs. These are the qualifications you receive at 16 after completing a series of coursework or examinations. GCSEs are taken by most secondary students across the UK. However, this is not the case in Scotland where there is a different education system in place.
GCSEs are classed as a level 2 qualifications taken during secondary school. Scottish students instead take National 5s, which are fairly similar to GCSEs. Like GCSEs, there are certain subjects which are compulsory to take. However, the grading system and examination process of the National 5s will be different to GCSEs. It is also not common for students to take as many National 5s as they would GCSEs.
Scotland has its own education framework which is very different from the rest of the UK. I recommend you read to find out more about these differences between GCSEs and the Scottish equivalent, National 5s.
What are GCSEs equivalent to in Scotland?
As mentioned above, the rough GCSE equivalent in Scotland is the National 5. National 5s are one of the seven National qualifications students are expected to take.
The Scottish education system has five curriculum levels, which are partially similar to key stages. The last of these levels is the senior phase which is from S4 to S6. The National 5 is taken during S4.
S4 is roughly an equivalent to Year 11 in England. You can find all the levels here on Education Scotland. You can also check out this Think Student article which explains these curriculum levels in more detail.
The number of National 5s you take varies depending on the region or the individual school you go to.
However, most state schools will stick to six or seven National 5s for each student. Independent schools may choose to do eight because they start teaching the National qualifications much earlier by shortening the Broad General Education part of the curriculum.
Independent schools may also choose to follow England’s qualification system. To learn more about this, check out this article by Relocate Magazine. You can find out more about the UK’s education system here on Think Student.
Similarly, to GCSEs, the National 5 courses can be assessed as coursework or through national examinations
National 5s can generally lead to a Foundation Apprenticeship or more popularly, Higher courses. Highers are roughly the equivalent of A-Levels. You can find out more about the Scottish Highers here on Think Student.
What are the differences between National 5 and GCSE?
The biggest difference between the National 5s and GCSEs is the grading system.
The current system in place in England is the 9-1 grading scheme which was first introduced in 2017. Along with the grading system, there was a new curriculum put in place as well.
9 is the highest grade, while 1 is the lowest. There is also a U grade which means “ungraded”. You can find out more on the 9-1 grading system by checking out this overview from Pearson Edexcel.
Scotland instead have the more traditional grading system with candidates being awarded grades A to D. Like the U grade, if a candidate scores less than 40%, they will receive a ‘No Award’ result and therefore not awarded the course. For more on this, check out this guide by SQA.
The grades A to C are equivalent to grade 4 to 9 in GCSE.
Different GCSE subjects in England can have different exam boards which are overseen by Ofqual. Ofqual is in charge of regulating qualifications in England. However, in Scotland, the SQA oversees the accreditation of educational awards, including the National 5s, and is the only exam board.
Exam boards used in England like Edexcel often separate qualifications into Higher and Foundation papers. However, students taking the National 5 will all take the same exam.
National 5 examinations often happen a little earlier than GCSE exams with the first set of examinations starting late April. You can find the official examination timetable for the National Qualifications in 2023 here on SQA.
Which subjects are compulsory to take at National 5?
Students are expected to choose around six subjects for their National 5. However, two of these subjects must be English and maths. Instead of maths, they could alternatively take Application of Maths which typically has higher grade boundaries.
Science is not nationally compulsory, but some schools may make you take science at National 5. These subjects are also compulsory throughout the rest of the UK, but the examinations will be different in each country.
To learn more about compulsory subjects for National 5s, check out this article by BBC Bitesize.
In England, regardless of the exam board, students will typically have three maths papers to complete. These are two calculator papers and one non-calculator paper.
In Scotland, students will take two papers. One will be calculator and the other will be non-calculator.