Updated: Apr 27
What is the difference between SQA qualifications and GCSES and A Levels?
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Scottish Highers and A Levels are the main qualifications that allow students to progress into higher education or gain employment after secondary school. Nowadays, a lot of people, parents especially, often get confused with the difference between these academic levels. We’ve put together this blog post to cover what these are and what exactly the differences are.
What are Scottish Highers?
Scottish Highers are the courses that students in Scotland sit after passing National 5 courses ("Nat 5s" can loosely be compared to GCSEs). Students typically sit around four to five Highers and start them in the fifth year (S5) of secondary school. Highers can also be sat in sixth year too alongside advanced Highers, allowing students to add to the existing collection they hopefully gained in S5. Achieving the Highers and grades that are required for university at the end of S5 can land students an unconditional offer for a place on a degree course.
If students pass higher courses in S5 they can then go on to study for Advanced Highers in S6. The average amount of Advanced Highers students sit are two or three. Advanced Highers aren’t necessary to get into universities in Scotland, however, they can improve chances and help student’s get an unconditional offer. Many Advanced Highers can replicate the level of challenge a young person will face in year one of university - they can be tough!
UCAS points for Scottish Highers
What are A-levels?
A-levels stand for Advanced Levels and these are the courses that students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland sit after GCSE level. These courses are taught at schools, sixth form centres and further education colleges. Like Highers, students tend to sit three to five A-level courses.
AS-level results would previously count towards a student’s final A-level result. A2 courses would then be added on to an AS level at the end of Year 6 and each of these would form the final result of A-levels. However, this recently changed and now AS-level results no longer go towards A-level grades. They are a one-year standalone qualification.
UCAS points for A Levels
What are the differences?
A common misunderstanding is that Scottish Highers and A Levels are the exact equivalent to each other. Although they are similar, there are a few differences, aside from being for students in different countries - although both in the UK and next-door neighbours!
A-levels are two-year courses: Students in England must sit A-level courses over two years, starting in year 12.
Scottish Highers are one-year courses: Students in Scotland only have one year to sit Highers. If they fail a higher in S5, they have the option to resist it in S6 - if the school allows them and the timetable can fit!
Scottish Advanced Highers are equal to A-levels: Most people assume that Scottish Highers are the equivalent to A-levels. This is incorrect. When comparing the UCAS points, A-levels sit somewhere in-between Highers and Advanced Highers. In fact, the lines are blurred with all of these comparisons but it is still useful to align them.
Higher, A-level and Advanced Higher UCAS points compared
It is important to note that most English universities entry requirements do not distinguish between A-levels and Advanced Highers.
A-level subjects vs Higher subjects
The type of subjects that students in Scotland and England can study vary greatly. Students in England can benefit from a wider variety of subject - 123 in total.
On the other hand, Scottish students have almost half that number with 72 courses available and this number varies from school to school, with most centres offering a small range to choose from.
It is important to note that there are a lot of specialist subjects offered at A-level, for example ‘Biblical Hebrew’. The core offer in both countries remains the same with physics, maths, English etc all on offered in both countries.
The SQA subject catalogue can be found here
For a full list of Scottish Highers available, see here.
For a full list of Scottish Advanced Highers available, see here.
For a full list of English A-levels available, see here.
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