S4 Curriculum FAQ

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Senior Phase — curricular concerns

Understandably, a number of parents have expressed concerns over the recently released modifications to the S4 curriculum. Peebles High School welcomes these natural anxieties and below we reproduce the key questions that have been asked of us, together with their respective answers.

We would like to engage with such parental concern fully, so please email us if you have further questions related to those raised here.


(click the title of any question to see the answer)

1. Why not eight subjects?

Why are students not choosing eight N4/5 subjects at the end of S2 which they could study in S3 and S4?...

Curriculum for Excellence ensures that every secondary student is entitled to expect their education to provide them with:

  • a broad general education, including well planned experiences and outcomes across all the curriculum areas in S1-S3
  • a senior phase of education after S3 which provides opportunities to obtain qualifications

S4 is the first time students should begin studying towards National Qualifications.

2. This limits future options?

Surely choosing six subjects in S4 instead of eight limits a student’s future options?...

The depth and style of learning in S4 will prepare students better than ever before to attain in S5.  Improved attainment often leads to increased choice in both future choices of study and in employment.  Students also have the opportunity to study courses in S5 and S6 that they have not studied in S4 thus increasing the range of qualifications should they need or wish to. 

3. What guarantees against disadvantage?

How can we be sure that PHS students would not be disadvantaged at university application if they have 6 N5s compared to other students who have sat 8 N5s?...

University entrance requirements are based upon the number and grade of N6 (Higher) qualifications gained in one sitting. The number of N5 qualifications or similar (Standard Grade/ GCSE) are not taken into account when offering places at University. At present some Universities request that in addition to Higher qualifications students should have a Standard Grade Credit pass in English, a smaller number of courses request that students also have a Standard Grade Credit pass in Maths. As a result of Curriculum for Excellent, Universities have modified their practices in recognition that across Scotland students will have fewer awards at National 5 level than they would have had in Standard Grade. For example; Edinburgh University and St Andrews University used to request a Standard Grade pass in a Modern Language for acceptance into their faculties of Arts and Humanities. They have now decided to remove this requirement.
Universities are beginning to publish guidance on curriculum for excellence and entry requirements. St Andrews University guidance on curriculum for excellence states that:

“ The University will require evidence of academic rigour, preferably in the form of a suitable diet of exams at the end of S5. The combination of the diet is entirely dependent on the context of the school curriculum: this could be 5/4 Highers or a mixture of Highers and Advanced Highers.”

For further information see  -

St Andrews Undergraduate Admissions Policy
Edinburgh Uni entry requirement and CfE

4. Can we not spread the courses?

Those schools who are offering 8 are doing so by spreading the course over S3 and S4. I believe other schools offering more than 6 are starting courses at Easter. Is there no way that PHS can do this, particularly given that students have specialised since the end of S1?...

The guidance given to schools on the implementation for Curriculum for Excellence clearly states that the first three years of the secondary school is where students should experience a broad general education. Student must not begin courses of study during these three years which limits course of study in the senior phase. S4 – S6 is when students should first start studying and being assessed in National Qualifications. Education Scotland’s recent publication on Inspection Guidance states that HMIe will expect to see that at “S1-S3, arrangements for choices do not narrow options for qualifications in the senior phase. Such choices do not involve traditional subject choice at the end of S2 (or earlier) for all young people in a cohort for a two-year course leading to qualifications in S4.

Education Scotland 2012 Inspection guidance

5. Can they meet the challenge?

How has the system adopted by PHS prepared students to meet the challenges of the senior phase?...

Peebles High School’s approach to the Broad General Education phase (S1-S3) provides a very solid foundation to enable students to achieve in the senior phase. By following a modal curriculum to the end of S3 all students have had the opportunity to develop their knowledge , understanding and skills that would prepare them for national 4 level or above in all curriculum areas in S4. As a result of more in depth study in Maths , English and the electives, students have had the opportunity to develop their knowledge , understanding and skills that would prepare them for national 5 level in those subjects.  Furthermore, the more familiar our teachers have become with the new courses, the more convinced we are as a school that the N5 Qualifications are significantly more demanding that Credit level Standard Grade or Intermediate 2 courses. This increased level of challenge will help students to bridge the gap between BGE and Higher better. The old system was proven not to be a good preparation for the demands of studying at Higher.

6. Elective choices to date helpful?

Will students who have covered elective courses over 2 years be better prepared for National Qualifications in that subject?...

Yes. Students who have studied a subject at elective level in S2 and S3 will have developed a greater depth of understanding and a more secure grasp of the skill of the subject. It is more likely that these students will be able to cope with the demands of N5 than those students who have no elective background in the subject.

7. How can my child 'cross lanes'?

Can a student study towards a N4/5 in S4 if they haven’t studied the subject in depth for the previous two years?...

Yes. By studying a modal curriculum up to the end of S3 all students have had the opportunity to develop their knowledge , understanding and skills that would prepare them for National 4 level or above in all curriculum areas in S4. 

8. Lack of preparation for Highers?

How will students be better prepared for Highers as result of the new system?...

Unlike previous systems the learning experience for students sitting N4/5 in their fourth year will be very similar to their experience of sitting highers in their fifth year. For a long time in Scottish Education students were ill prepared for the pace and personal demands of the higher system due to the different structures of the standard grades and higher. As a result of the new system students in S4 will be more prepared to cope with the increased pace and challenge and will respond to the greater emphasis on their own responsibility for their learning.

9. Organisation for S4 students?

How will classes be organised in S4?...

Courses in S4 will be offered at N3 or N4/5 level. Timetabling arrangements will ensure that where there is sufficient uptake in a subject, classes will be able to be set by ability level.

10. Muddying the pitch for others?

How will the classes work if you have a student that has chosen to study Chemistry since S2 and a student who picks it up for the first time in S4?...

Every class has a broad range of abilities and good teachers build in differentiation into their lessons to ensure that they meet the needs of all the learners. This will continue into the senior phase. Where sufficient numbers of students opt to study courses in the senior phase these classes will be timetabled to allow for classes to be set by ability and prior knowledge.

11. N4 result precludes N6 continuation?

Can a student who sits a National 4 in S4 do a National 6 course in S5 in that subject ?...

Most students will require to achieve an N5 pass in a subject to be accepted onto a N6 (Higher ) course. In a small number of cases students can crash  a course where they can show that they have attained to the required standard in a subject with a similar skills set or at the same level. For example, a student may be allowed to study Modern Studies at N6 level where they can show they have attained an N5 pass in another social subject.

12. 2nd/ 3rd year achievements worthless?

Doesn’t dropping a subject in S4 render the work the pupils have achieved in 2nd and 3rd year worthless?...

No. There are many reasons for studying a subject in addition to gaining a qualification. Through studying a subject in depth we may gain knowledge which can enhance our understanding of the world and develop transferable skills which may assist the student in school and beyond.  A student will also have the opportunity to re –engage with that subject in their fifth and sixth years and study towards a National Qualification if they wish.

13. Fewer N5's limits further choice?

Doesn’t achieving fewer N5s narrow the choice for pupils in S5 and S6?...

For a student who wishes to achieve five highers in their fifth year studying 6 National Qualifications in S4 as opposed to eight Standard Grades does narrow their choices in S5. However, as a result of studying a broad general education for three years students will be more experienced and thus more able to decide which National Qualifications they wish to take.

14. Why the variety of approaches?

Why is there a variety of approaches to the senior phase across Scotland?...

The Scottish Government and HMIe have allowed schools to decide the most appropriate curriculum structures for themselves as long as they work within various guidelines.  Peebles High School has taken the decision to offer six National Qualifications in S4 and five Highers in consultation with Secondary Headteachers and the Education Department at Scottish Borders Council.

15. Why no prior consultation?

Why were parents not consulted on the decision to reduce from seven choices to six in S4?...

Any consultation that would have offered the choice of seven or more subjects would have been a false consultation. Each National Course lasts for 160 hours. The school year lasts for 39 weeks. This is reduced to 34 teaching weeks when time is removed for study leave for the prelims and the final exams. When the content of the new National Qualifications became clearer, teaching staff at Peebles High School were united that students will need as close to 160 hours as possible in order to give them the best chance at being successful.  Offering 6 qualifications at 5 periods per week will mean that students will receive 150 hours.  In order to offer 7 qualifications, courses would have to be delivered in 130 hours. This is not enough time.  It is for this reason that parents were not consulted about the decision. Had the parental body requested 7 choices, as we had originally planned, we would not have been able to offer it while still believing that we were delivering the best chances of success for our students.

Student Pathways

The following diagrams and learner journeys are designed to help understand the various flexible routes through the senior phase.

student pathways

Student A

Student A studied a broad general education throughout S1-S3. In S4 they studied Maths and English and four other subjects all at National 4/5. All of these subjects had been studied as electives in their 2nd and 3rd years. At the end of S4 Student A achieving 6 National 5 awards. In S5 they continued with 5 of the 6 courses at Higher level. At the end of S5 they achieved 5 Higher awards. In S6 they studied 2 Advanced Highers and 2 National 5 courses. Student A left to study the degree of their choice at the university of their choice

student pathways

Student B

Student B studied a broad general education throughout S1-S3. In S4 they studied Maths and English and four other subjects all at National 4/5. All but one of these subjects had been studied as an elective in their 2nd and 3rd years. At the end of S4 Student B achieved 5 National 5 awards and 1 National 4 award. In S5 they continued with three of the National 5 awards taking them at Higher level. They also took two National 4/5 courses. At the end of S5 Student B achieved 3 Highers and two N5 awards.   In S6 student B took 3 more Highers and one National 4/5 course.  Student B left to study the degree of their choice.

Student C

Student C studied a broad general education throughout S1-S3. In S4 they studied Maths and English and four other subjects. Two of these were at National 3 level and 4 at National 4/5. At the end of S4 Student C achieved a pass in all their courses at levels 3 and 4. In S5 Student C continued with 4 of the subjects in S4 all at National 4/5 level.  They also took a new course at National 4/5 level. At the end of S5 Student C achieved 5 National 5 awards. In S6 they studied 2 Highers and two National 4/5 courses achieving a pass in all four courses. Student C left to study an HND at the college of their choice.