Current National Qualifications framework

National Qualifications have been designed and developed to support Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), which introduced a new way of learning to schools and colleges in 2010.

The new qualifications will help young people to demonstrate the knowledge, understanding and skills they have developed at school or college and enable them to prepare for further learning, training and employment.

What are the new qualifications?

This table shows how the new qualifications replace previous National Qualifications.

SCQF LevelNew National QualificationPrevious National Qualification
National 1
Access 1
National 2
Access 2
National 3
Access 3 / Standard Grade (Foundation level)
National 4
Standard Grade (General level) / Intermediate 1
National 5
Standard Grade (Credit level) / Intermediate 2
Higher (new)
Advanced Higher (new)
Advanced Higher

NQs have been designed to be as flexible as possible to meet the needs of all students. Qualifications can be built up over time, encouraging students to progress to the highest level they can achieve.

National Units

National Units are the building blocks of National Courses and Awards. They are also qualifications in their own right. They generally take around 40 hours of teaching to complete. Many full-time NQ college courses are made up of groupings of National Units.

Unit assessments are tasks set and marked by teachers and lecturers to national standards. This is known as internal assessment.

Before starting a Unit, teaching staff will make sure that students know what has to be learned and what they have to do to pass. The students will be told in advance when the assessment will take place, and students will be awarded the Unit when they have passed all parts of the assessment satisfactorily. If they don't pass first time, they can be reassessed. The Units are marked on a pass/fail basis.

National 1 Units build on the broad general education offered in S1–S3 and allow learners to work towards qualifications that are appropriate to their needs. These Units continue to provide opportunities for personalised approaches to learning and assessment.

Within the National 1 Units, there is no longer a distinction between Supported, Independent and Derived Units. SQA will communicate specific details to teachers/lecturers and provide support in advance of the finish dates for each Unit.

National Courses

National Courses are available from National 2 to Advanced Higher.

National 2 and National 3 Courses are assessed through the Unit assessments only. Unit assessments are marked internally by the teacher/lecturer and learners need to pass all Units to achieve the qualification. These qualifications are not graded, but will be assessed as pass or fail.

National 4 Courses are made up of Units, but they also include an Added Value Unit that assesses the Course as a whole; much like the Course assessment at National 5 and above. Unit assessments, including the Added Value Unit assessment, are marked internally by the teacher/lecturer. To achieve the qualification, learners need to pass all Unit assessments, including the Added Value Unit assessment. National 4 is not graded, but will be assessed as pass or fail.

National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher Courses are made up of Units and a Course assessment. The Course assessment consists of a question paper (exam) and/or coursework (assignments, portfolios, practical activities etc). To achieve the qualification, learners need to pass all Unit assessments (see National Units paragraph above), plus the Course assessment. Unit assessments are marked internally by the teacher/lecturer as pass or fail.

For the Course assessment, SQA will externally mark all question papers (exams) and the majority of coursework, however: in some subjects, coursework will be marked internally by the school or college. It is important to be aware that passing the Unit assessments does not guarantee that the student will pass the Course. In the final Course assessment, students have to demonstrate that they can use and apply the knowledge and skills gained from the whole course.

Students' performance in the external assessments decides the final Course grades that they will achieve. External assessments play an important role, too, in ensuring that the rigorous standards of National Qualifications are maintained and that all students are being assessed in the same way across Scotland.

There are seven approved assessment methods that may be used for both Unit and Course assessment: assignment, case study, practical activity, performance, portfolio, project, question paper/test.

Courses at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher will be graded A to D or ‘No Award’.

Quality assuring internal assessments

New quality assurance arrangements have been introduced to support the flexible delivery of the new qualifications and ensure that they are recognised as a valuable achievement for learners.

A combination of approaches to externally verify the internal assessment of the new qualifications will be used, including: prior verification, verification events and visiting verification activities.

Learners who receive a 'Fail' or 'No Award' result

Learners who do not achieve the Course Award will still receive SCQF credit points for any Units they have passed within the Course. These Units will appear on the detailed Record of Attainment section of their qualifications certificate, and will be listed along with the number of credit points obtained.

There are no automatic compensatory arrangements in place at any level. However, learners who receive a 'No Award' result for National 5 may be able to achieve the Course at National 4 on successful completion of the Added Value Unit Assessment for National 4.

More from Education Scotland

  • National Qualifications

    Free resources and subject guidance for teachers of National Qualifications in Scotland's secondary schools and further education colleges. Materials include advice and guidance for the new National Qualifications.

Other websites

  • SQA NQ homepage

    News, information and support materials for SQA’s suite of National Qualifications.