Nationals and Highers: Scotland's exams and grade boundaries explained as results day approaches

There is just one month to go until results day 📜
  • There is just one month to go before Scottish secondary school students will find out how they did in their exams.
  • There are four passing grades - but also different grade bands you can find out more about from your school.
  • While exact grade boundaries are still to be set, they usually stay at a pretty consistent level.

The lengthy wait for Scottish students to find out how they did in their ‘Nationals’ and ‘Highers’ is entering its final stretch.

Scottish secondary school pupils finished their exam season a little earlier than their English peers, with the final day falling on 30 May this year. Now at long last, results day just one month away. But although some might be relieved the wait is almost over, for many young people this can be a stressful and anxious time - with their pending results a big factor in what the next stage of their educational journey could look like.

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Candidates are likely to have many questions, like which grades constitute a pass, and how will the grade boundaries be set this year. Here’s everything Scottish students and parents need to know:

How are National and Higher exams marked - and what do the different grades mean?

Education is Scotland is a devolved issue, meaning it has its own set of secondary school qualifications different from other parts of the UK. These are administered by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, or SQA.

After exam season ended, papers were securely packaged up and sent out to a team of more than 6,500 teachers and subject experts across the country to be marked. Once they’re done, SQA holds a series of meetings with markers to determine what the minimum amount of marks needed for each grade will be, for every single subject.

Pupils at Craigmount High receiving their SQA exam results last year. Some students opt to wait and open them together (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Pupils at Craigmount High receiving their SQA exam results last year. Some students opt to wait and open them together (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Pupils at Craigmount High receiving their SQA exam results last year. Some students opt to wait and open them together (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Students who have sat their National 5 exams or ‘Nationals’ - which are roughly equivalent to England’s GCSEs - will be awarded a letter grade based on what they decide, as will students who sat their Highers (similar to an A Levels) or Advanced Highers (which are considered slightly more difficult).

These letter grades go from A to D, with A being the highest score and D the lowest. These are all, however, passing grades, meaning that even if you get a D for one subject listed on your results then you have still been awarded that course - frequently by scoring between 40 and 49% of possible marks.

If you don’t manage to score enough for a D grade you will be the given the ‘No Award’ result, which will usually be clearly outlined in the letter accompanying your Scottish Qualifications Certificate on results day. Unfortunately, this means you have not passed - although you might be able to resit the exam the following year, in agreement with your school.

The higher letter grades, A through C, are also split into two bands. This means it’s possible to achieve an upper or a lower A, B, or C grade. This information won’t be included with your certificate, and to find out your exact result and which band you were in you’ll usually need to request the information from your school. This may not be available until the new term begins, although for school leavers, you can also request it directly from SQA online here.

What will this year’s grade boundaries be?

Unfortunately, 2024’s exact grade boundaries - the amount of marks needed to achieve each letter grade - for each subject will not be released until results day. This is because they are set, in part, based on the overall performance of students who sat the exam that year, to help account for anything out of the ordinary. This could be something like students appearing to find an exam extremely easy or far more difficult than intended.

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However, SQA says that they aim “to ensure standards are maintained year on year, so that the qualifications and grades awarded retain their value and currency”. That means this year’s boundaries have a good chance of being fairly similar to last year’s.

An A grade in most subjects involved scoring at least 70% last year, while a B was usually around 60% or up, a C around 50%, and a D around 40% - although this dropped down to the low 30s for some classes. You can see the full list of last year’s grade boundaries online here.

Many students will find out their results digitally by either text or email (Photo: Adobe Stock)Many students will find out their results digitally by either text or email (Photo: Adobe Stock)
Many students will find out their results digitally by either text or email (Photo: Adobe Stock)

When is results day?

Unlike in England where GCSEs and A Level results are handed out on different days, all SQA exams results will be released at once. This year, results day will be on Tuesday, 6 August this year.

There are a couple of different ways students can get their exam results - and hopefully their qualification certificates - on the big day. It’s currently still possible to sign up for them to be texted or emailed to you on 6 August, with texts rolling out from 8am. You can do this by registering on MySQA here. You’ll also be posted your full results envelope first class.

The wait for results day can be an anxious time for students, and for parents and carers trying to support them. SQA has put together a webpage with some advice and links to follow if you or a young person in your life start to feel stressed or overwhelmed. You can check it out online here.

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