The Equivalent of A-Levels in Scotland? – Scottish Highers Explained

In A-Level, General by Think Student EditorLeave a Comment

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, many students decide to move on to further education after completing their GCSEs. Many of these students will decide to study A-Levels. Typically, when taking A-Levels, students take 3 courses. However, some decide to take 4 or study additional qualifications, such as an EPQ or an AS qualification. In other parts of the UK, different qualifications may be taken altogether. For example, in Scotland, students may decide to study Highers.

In short, Scottish Highers are the equivalent of the AS and A-Levels that students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland take. Higher courses only last 1 year. They are taken by 16–17-year-olds in preparation for university. Students in Scotland may then go on to study for a further year to gain Advanced Highers at age 18.

If you would like to find out more about Scottish Highers, and how they compare to A-Levels, make sure to continue reading this article.  

What are Scottish Highers?

In Scotland, Highers are the equivalent of A-Levels in England. The average student takes 4-5 subjects for their Highers. They are targeted at students who want to continue their further education at university.  

Many students then go on to take three of their subjects for a second year of study Like A-Levels. Highers are also a good option for those who don’t yet know what they want to do in their future, and they are a good way to continue your education and keep your options open for yourself.  

Scottish secondary education runs from S1 to S6. S1 to S4 are compulsory. Scottish Highers are S5 and S6. S5 are the equivalent of year 12 in the rest of the UK. These are sat at the same time as the old AS-Levels. S6 are sat in the final year of school and are the equivalent to A-levels.

If you would like to learn more about Scottish Highers, please click here to view the UCAS website.

When did the Scottish Highers begin?

Highers have actually existed in Scotland in one form or another since 1888. They were originally literally the ‘higher’ levels of the assessments of the individual subjects on Scottish secondary school curriculum.  

At first, the higher-level qualification was aimed at those students who wanted to go to university. As well as the lower level for those who intended to go into careers such as business, banking, or insurance. 

Over the years Highers evolved until, in 1999, a whole new style of Higher exams system was introduced in Scotland. This made Highers part of the National Qualifications, so that all exams formed one continuous scale of achievements awarded by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. The most basic qualification (Access 1) at the bottom end of the scale and the most difficult qualification (Advanced Higher -level 7) at the top end. 

What are the requirements for taking Scottish Highers?

The minimum number of qualifications you need to progress to studying Highers in Scotland is at least 5 National 5s. National 5s are the equivalent of the GCSEs which are sat in the UK. The results for these exams must be between a grade A and C, otherwise you will not reach the entry requirements for the Higher courses. Having said this it is important to check with the school you are looking to study at, as the requirements do vary from school to school.

The main difference between A-Levels and Highers is that Higher courses only last 1 year as opposed to the 2 years which A-Level students spend working on their course. This means that Scottish students can take more Higher courses than English students taking A-Levels. (Subjects are narrowed down to three if students take an extra year of study in order to gain Advanced Highers). 

What can Scottish Highers lead on to?

Highers are the most popular qualifications studied in Scotland to progress on to higher education such as university, but they also give you a number of options for next steps.  In fact, as previously mentioned, Scottish Highers are targeted at students who want to attend university in Scotland. This is much like A-Levels. Most universities elsewhere in the UK insist on students who have studied in Scotland to have Advanced Highers. In reality, most students at universities in Scotland will have taken Advanced Highers. 

However, even if you are not planning on going to university, Scottish Highers can still lead to some great opportunities for you, some of these include:

  • Looking for employment as a Higher demonstrates a good level of education
  • Going on to study an HNC/HND at an FE college or vocational or work-based qualifications, such as an apprenticeship, a higher apprenticeship, or a degree apprenticeship. 
  • Keeping your options open if you are not yet sure which career path or course of study to follow. 

So, whether you are planning on going to university or not, Scottish Highers are a great option to consider.

How are Scottish Highers assessed?

No matter which subjects you take at Higher level, you will be assessed in a similar way. You will study various units throughout the year, each followed by its own assessment. Then there will be a final exam at the end of each course which gives you your grade. 

You must pass all your assessments throughout the year as well as gain a passing grade in the final exam in order to receive your qualification in a particular subject. However, it is possible to still gain a qualification by just sitting the end exam. If you do this, the words EXAM ONLY will appear on your exam certificate.  

Some schools insist that students pass all their assessments before they are allowed to sit the final exam. This can be a lot of work. But it means that even if you happen to fail the final exam, it won’t be as bad. This is because your performance in the assessments is still recorded on your final certificate which means that at least you have something to show for your year of study. 

Check out the Scottish government website here to learn more about the structure of Scottish Highers and how they are assessed.

What are the differences between A-Levels and Scottish Highers?

After their GCSEs, students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland can choose to study a two-year A-Level course. This will usually be in three subjects, but could possibly be in four. Check out this article to find out more about how many A-Levels you can take.

Scottish Higher qualifications are slightly different to A-Levels. The spread of Highers subjects is generally the same as A-Levels. However, after one year of study in their chosen five subjects, students take their Highers exams. This makes Scottish Highers very similar to the AS qualifications that you can get in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. They may then choose to study three of these subjects for a second year, leading to Advanced Highers qualifications and these are equivalent to A-Levels.

After their one year of studying Highers, it is hypothetically possible for students to have enough points to apply to a Scottish university. But most still take the option of staying on a further year to study three subjects as Advanced Highers. 

With Advanced Highers under their belts, it is possible for students in Scotland to skip the first year of a four-year degree course and join the course in the second year. While a few do so, most start in the first year as they would otherwise.

Scottish Highers vs A-Level grades

Highers are awarded at grades A-C. Advanced Highers are awarded at grades A-D. Advanced Higher level have the same UCAS tariff points as A-Levels.

How many UCAS points are Scottish Highers worth?

The table below shows the comparative UCAS points for Scottish Highers and AS-Levels.

Scottish Higher UCAS Points AS-Level UCAS Points
A 33 A 20
B 27 B 16
C 21 C 12
D 15 D 10
    E 6

The table below shows the comparative UCAS points for Scottish Advanced Highers and A-Levels.

Scottish Advanced Higher UCAS Points A-Level UCAS Points
A 56 A* 56
B 48 A 48
C 40 B 40
D 32 C 32
    D 24
    E 16

The tables above show the generic UCAS point conversion for Scottish Highers. Click here to use the UCAS tariff point calculator for specific courses.

Can you resit Scottish Highers? 

Like A-Levels, you can absolutely resit your Highers if you are unhappy with your grade at the end of the course. Check out this Think student article to learn more about A-Levels resits.

The most common Higher to be resit is Higher Maths. This could be for a variety of reasons – yes, students may not be pleased with their result when they first get it back, but people often retake their Highers later in their life, perhaps for a specific job with certain qualification requirements.

What subjects can you study Scottish Highers in?

Highers can be studied in a wide range of subjects. These range from the traditional academic subjects such as English and mathematics. But also include vocational subjects such as mental health care and accounting. 

These were the most popular subjects studied at Higher level in 2019 (in descending order): 

  • English 
  • Maths 
  • Chemistry 
  • History 
  • PE 
  • Modern Studies 
  • Physics 
  • Business Management 
  • Biology 
  • Geography 
  • Human Biology 
  • Art and design 
  • Music 
  • Administration and IT 
  • Religious, moral and philosophical studies 
  • Graphic communication 
  • French 
  • Psychology 
  • Computing science 
  • Spanish 
  • Drama 
  • Photography 
  • Design and manufacture 
  • Accounting 
  • Politics 
  • Health and food technology 
  • Engineering science 
  • Media 
  • Care 
  • German 
  • Philosophy 

How do you choose which Scottish Highers to study?

When choosing your Highers, you should bear in mind which subjects you are likely to both enjoy and be good at. As well as whether there are specific subjects you need if you have a particular career, job, or further study in mind. You may also need to choose specific subjects to meet entrance requirements. 

For university, you’ll probably need a minimum of four Highers. If you take Highers over more than one year some universities insist that at least three of them are taken in S4-S6. You can have subjects you take in S6 considered, but when considering S6 the grades asked for may go up. For example, for more competitive courses, you will probably need to have five Highers from S5 and further qualifications from S6. 

If you stay on for S6 you can choose to study Advanced Highers. These are not usually needed for entry to Scottish universities except for more competitive courses such as Medicine, Dentistry or Veterinary Science. So, it is best to concentrate on achieving the best grades in your Highers before moving on to Advanced Highers. 

Many universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland accept Highers alone in their entry requirements. But others may also require up to three Advanced Highers on top of normal Highers. If you are thinking about studying Advanced Highers, this is worth thinking about. If you are unsure about a specific university’s entry requirements, contact the university directly to check their specific requirements. 

While considering specific requirements, it is a good idea to show a good range of study as this is thought of as a good foundation for your first year of university studies. Be sure to look at the list of Higher subjects above, as well as checking out any others that are offered at your school.

Tips to help you decide on your subject choices

Deciding which subjects, you want to study can be tough. This is especially as it can be a very important decision and you may have to consider what you want to study in the future.

 You can use the following tips as a great way to help you decide:

  • Think about what you are good at and enjoy. 
  • Get help from teachers and careers advisors. 
  • Research by attending university or college open days and checking entrance requirements online. 
  • Check with university and college admissions direct. 
  • Choose subjects you feel you are likely to do well at. 
  • Make sure you are aware of any options you may be limiting by not choosing to study a particular subject or subjects.
  • Read up about course content to get an initial impression of any new subject you may be considering. 
  • Be careful not to take on too many brand-new subjects. 
  • Talk to students who have studied the subject before and/or teachers who teach it. 
  • Some Scottish universities have slightly lower entrance requirements for widening access students. It is worth checking whether you would be considered a widening access student. 

Deciding what to pick can be an exciting time for students. Make sure you follow the tips above to help you make the best choices for your future.

What is the Scottish Baccalaureate?

The Scottish Baccalaureate is a qualification that is unique to education in Scotland. It is a Level 7 qualification in the SCQF levels which means that it is the same level of study as Advanced Highers. As it is takes up less hours of study, it is also worth less credit points. You can choose to study the Scottish Baccalaureate in the areas of languages, sciences, social sciences, or expressive arts. 

In order to gain this qualification, you need to complete one Higher, two Advanced Highers and an independent interdisciplinary project (IP). You will be awarded a Pass or a Distinction overall, depending on your grades for each part. 

Click here to find out more details about the Scottish Baccalaureate.

Who is the Scottish Baccalaureate suited to?

This qualification is great for those who are considering moving on to either Higher Education or employment. This is because it offers you the chance to study a group of related subjects to a high standard as well as giving you the chance to show that you are capable of independent study.  

The course can be very beneficial for you especially as it is intended to: 

  • Provide you with valuable opportunities to make connections with the wider world of learning and work. 
  • Broaden your experience and give you opportunities to apply and extend your subject knowledge and skills. 
  • Raise the value of learning and motivate you in your last year of school – sixth year.  
  • Encourage more links between what you choose to study in fifth year to sixth year.  

This will add breadth and value to your studies as well as develop your skills and confidence in the area you have chosen to specialise in. The chance to study for a Scottish Baccalaureate is offered at a number of state and independent schools and some colleges in Scotland.

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