Why Pick an Independent School in Scotland?

There are some fantastic independent schools in Scotland offering day and full boarding experiences to local and international students, the choice of an English, Scottish or IB education, a global outlook balanced with Scottish customs – and not forgetting a strong tradition of top level golf.
Why Pick an Independent School in Scotland?
By Carli Allan
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Independent schools in Scotland offer a quality and diversity of education that attracts students from far and wide. Just across the border from England you’ll find some of the UK’s oldest independent schools. There are more than 90 selective and non-selective, boarding and day, co-ed and single sex schools here in both urban and rural settings. Scottish schools offer a huge amount of choice, from Gordonstoun, where three generations of the Royal Family were educated, to Loretto School, which was founded in 1827 and is one of Scotland’s oldest boarding schools.

Not limited to a standard curriculum, Scottish independent schools offer students a choice of three different curricula and qualifications – English, Scottish and the International Baccalaureate – which all lead to internationally recognised qualifications by universities. There’s a very wide range of outdoor pursuits, as well as team and individual sports; some of Scotland’s boarding schools have golf, tennis and hockey academies; and there are some of the best golf courses in Europe here. There aren’t too many schools across the UK that can rival some of the picturesque and historic campuses found in Scotland, either.

Many independent schools offer a traditional boarding experience that is rooted in Scottish heritage and traditions. Students learn to play the bagpipes, practice Scottish dancing and celebrate Burns Night; they often wear their school’s self-designed tartan as part of the uniform; and sporting events may include an annual Highland Games.

Schools are also thinking globally, both in terms of recruitment and by taking an international outlook on how and what they teach – so there’s a huge global appeal.

Scotland is a stunning place to study, with its exciting landscapes of mountains and rivers, castles and coastline that offers so many opportunities for outdoor learning – and Duke of Edinburgh expeditions take students to the incredible adventure playground that is the Scottish Highlands. (It’s also the only place you can ski and snowboard, on natural snow, in the UK.)

While it may feel remote and difficult to get to, Scotland has several international airports, including those in the cosmopolitan cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Yes, it rains a lot (it has the highest annual volume of rain in the UK), but schools have facilities like all-weather pitches and a hardy spirit that won’t let the weather get in the way of learning. It’s also lighter for longer here, as the sun sets later across Scotland due to its northerly position.

If you’re considering a private education in Scotland, then here’s what you need to know…

What choice of independent schools do I have in Scotland?

The university city of St Andrews is also home to the independent school, Leonards School

According to the 2020 Annual Census by the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, which represents a majority of the nation’s independent schools, it has 71 member schools within Scotland; this includes 19 boarding schools, four all-boys and four all-girls schools. The private education sector in Scotland educates 4.1% of students in Scotland, and there are more than 2,600 boarding students across the nation: there’s a significant number of international students (35% coming from around 80 different countries).

Scotland’s independent schools stretch from Edinburgh and Glasgow ((the two cities are home to 40% of Scottish private schools) to the north, east and west coastlines. There’s a huge range of schools here, offering a choice of curricula, location boarding options, admissions policy and much more.

Dollar Academy is a day and boarding school in Clackmannanshire that follows the Scottish system, including National 5, Highers, and Advanced Highers. St Leonards was the first all-through International Baccalaureate school in Scotland and is one of only a few schools in the UK to offer all four IB programmes – the IB Primary Years Programme (PYP), Middle Years Programme (MYP), Diploma Programme, and Career-related Programme.

Strathallan’s curriculum covers Highers, Advanced Highers and A Levels, while Glenalmond School offers GCSEs and A Levels. Prep schools including Cargilfield and Belhaven Hill prepare students for the Common Entrance and scholarship examinations in their final year.

Senior Schools offer a choice of flexi, weekly and full boarding, and there are prep schools offering boarding from as young as 10 years.

Schools with larger communities of international boarders (100-plus) include Fettes College, Glenalmond College (where 75% of students are boarders), Gordonstoun, Loretto, Merchiston, St Leonards and Strathallan.

Queen Victoria School (QVS) is the only full boarding school in Scotland for the children of the UK Armed Forces who are Scottish, have served in Scotland or are members of a Scottish regiment.

Many of Scotland’s independent schools have the huge advantage of space, and some of the campuses are truly stunning. At Lathallan School, for example, students learn in a 19th-century castle set amid a 60-acre wooded estate on the edge of the North Sea with a pebbled beach and a small farm. Glenalmond College is situated in 300 acres of stunning Perthshire countryside at the Gateway to the Scottish Highlands. And students at St Leonards in St Andrews study in a campus bounded by medieval walls in the heart of the seaside university town of St Andrews.

What courses do Scottish independent schools offer?

View over Edinburgh where you'll find Merchiston, George Eliot's School and Fettes College

This varies. You can choose from three different curricula and qualifications for your child – Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, the English National Curriculum or the International Baccalaureate programme.

As students move up through secondary education, some schools offer Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) courses at National 5, Highers and Advanced Highers; some schools follow the English system of GCSEs and A Levels; a very small number offer the International Baccalaureate; and there are some schools offering a combination of options. Fettes College, for example, offers Sixth Formers a choice of pathways – A Levels or the IBDP.

IB or A Levels in the UK - Which Is Right For You?

How is the Scottish education system different from the rest of the UK?

The Scottish Highlands, where many students go on DofE expeditions 

The Scottish system is based on the Curriculum for Excellence, which covers an all-through education from three to 18 years. The Curriculum for Excellence is followed by all state schools in Scotland, and the majority of its independent schools.

The Broad General Education for early years (age 3) until the end of S3 (age 13/14) covers a broad spectrum of subjects including expressive arts, health and well-being, languages (including English and modern languages), mathematics, religious and moral education, sciences, social studies, and technologies.

In the senior phase curriculum, from S4 to S6 (ages 15 to 18), students begin to sit Scottish national qualifications – National 4-5, Highers and Advanced Highers.

Year groups may be named following the system used in England and Wales (Years 1-13) or in Scotland (P1 to S6).

All independent schools in Scotland are charities, so tuition fees are either invested back into the school and its facilities or allocated to means-tested bursary funds to enable children from less financially advantaged backgrounds to attend.

What is the difference between English A Levels and Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers?

The Scottish education system is broader for longer so that students do not specialise in their chosen subjects until they are 18 years old. Typically, students sit five Highers at the age of 17 and then sit three Advanced Highers in their final year of school.

Under the English system, students typically study three A Levels over two years, aged 17-18 years.

How much are tuition fees in Scotland?

Annual day fees range considerably from £8,985-11,649 at Hamilton College to as much as £17,640-30,870 at Fettes College; Gordonstoun (£12,300-31,080), Merchiston (£15,330-26,040) and Loretto (£9,600-24,300) also have some of the highest annual day fees in Scotland. A boarding education in Scotland ranges from £33,723 at Dollar Academy to £42,750 for a child in Sixth Form at Gordonstoun.

Many schools offer scholarships for excellence in academic, sport and the arts. Don’t expect a scholarship to cover the full cost of your child’s education, though. As most independent schools divert their funds towards bursaries that encourage high-achieving children from lower-income families to join their school, scholarships have far less financial value. Instead, it’s all about the prestige and honour of being a scholar – and getting that huge confidence boost of being selected by a school from hundreds of applicants.

There are schools offering means-tested assistance to the value of 100% on day and boarding fees alongside a scholarship.

Are Scottish independent schools inspected?

Yes, all schools are inspected by in terms of teaching by Education Scotland in the same way as state schools, while the Care Inspectorate monitors boarding accommodation and the care provided. These reports can be viewed on the school’s website.

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