National Qualifications

What are National Qualifications?

National Qualifications are one of the most important types of qualification in Scotland, and almost everyone leaving school or college today has one or more National Qualification. They are mainly taken by learners in the senior phase of secondary school (S4 to S6) and learners in colleges, including adult learners.
They cover a range of subjects and are designed to develop the skills and knowledge needed to succeed beyond the classroom; whether progressing to other SQA qualifications, training, employment or university. Find out more at

What skills do learners develop when studying National Qualifications?

Learners develop practical skills like data collection and team-working; Core Skills like literacy, numeracy, communication, ICT and problem solving; and Skills for Learning, Life and Work (SfLLW) such as employability, independent thinking, and enterprise and citizenship.

How are literacy and numeracy skills developed?

Literacy and/or numeracy skills are developed within all National courses, though how this takes place will vary depending on the subject area.There are National Literacy Units and National Numeracy Units which learners can study for on a stand-alone basis.These units are also a required part of some National courses. More information can be found on our Literacy and Numeracy page.

Why do learners in some schools study 5 or 6 subjects in S4, while others study 7 or 8?

SQA does not specify the number of qualifications that schools should deliver. The number of subjects that learners study in S4 is decided locally by the school or local authority.

Why are there no exams in National 4 courses?

National 4 courses have been designed to provide flexibility in timetabling and assessment. Internal assessment is more suitable for courses at National 4 level and will help to build learners' confidence in preparation for National 5. Learners do a National 4 Added Value Unit assessment instead of an exam, and the Added Value Unit assessment allows them to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they have developed throughout the course.

Do internally assessed qualifications hold less weight than those with externally marked assessments?

No. All internally assessed qualifications are subject to robust quality assurance by SQA, to ensure that the qualifications are being assessed at the national standard.

National 4 follows a similar model to other existing qualifications such as the Higher National Certificate (HNC) and Higher National Diploma (HND), which are both internally assessed but quality assured by SQA. Many people use these qualifications to progress into employment or to get into higher education, often with advanced standing (where the university accepts the qualification as credit towards completing an undergraduate course, enabling the student to enter the course at a more advanced stage, eg entering at second year instead of third year).

What support is available during exams and assessments for disabled candidates or candidates with additional support needs?

SQA can allow assessment arrangements to be made for candidates in their exams and assessments. For example, a candidate who experiences difficulties with writing can use a laptop. We allow many different kinds of assessment support, such as use of sign language, human readers, scribes, prompters or extra time to complete assessments. We can also provide adapted question papers, including Braille question papers, digital question papers, large print question papers and question papers printed on coloured paper.

The school or college is responsible for making an assessment arrangments request to SQA and we will work with them to find the most suitable arrangement for the candidate. In most cases, the school or college will have already identified the candidate's needs and will be providing support for them during their studies, not just in exams and assessments.

Do all learners sit prelims?

No. It is for individual schools and colleges to decide whether or not to use prelims. Prelims do not form part of the formal assessment process for National Qualifications and are not a requirement.

Prelim papers are set and marked by the school or college, not by SQA.

Are grades in National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher Courses banded?

Yes, however this information does not appear on the candidate's qualifications certificate. The certificate will simply state that the candidate has achieved grade A, B, C or D.

If a candidate wishes to find out which band they have achieved, they will need to contact their school or college. The school or college will be provided with details of which band the candidate achieved their grade at; for example, where a candidate has achieved an A, if they achieved an A (upper) at Band 1 or an A (lower) at Band 2.

What does Grade D mean?

National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher courses are graded A, B, C or D. Grade D indicates that the candidate has achieved a band 7 in the course assessment, which equates to 40-49%.

Candidates who score less than 40% receive a 'No Award' result and are not awarded the course. 

SQA does not count a Grade D (band 7) as contributing to any Course or Group Award it may be part of, whether an Award, National Progression Award, National Certificate or Professional Development Award.

Is a Grade D at National 5 higher than a pass at National 4?

Yes. National 5 Courses carry 24 Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) credit points at SCQF level 5, reflected the level of demand and difficulty involved.

National 4 Courses - which are not graded - also carry 24 SCQF points, however these are at SCQF level 4, which has a lower level of demand and challenge.

What are grade boundaries and how do they work?

Grade boundaries are the marks required to achieve a particular grade within a Course.

For each National Course, the Course assessment (whether question paper or coursework, or both) has an intended level of demand and difficulty which reflects the grade descriptors for the Course and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) level at which it is set.

If the Course assessment is found to be easier or more difficult than intended, adjustments are made to make sure the national standard of the Course is maintained. In other words, to make sure that the level of difficulty required to achieve an A, B, C or D in the assessment remains unchanged from one year to the next.

We take our responsibility to uphold the high standards of Scottish qualifications very seriously.

What is the fallback position for candidates who receive a 'fail' or 'No Award' result?

There is no automatic fallback position at any level. The opportunity to use Recognising Positive Achievement to gain a National 4 course award was removed at the end of session 2018-19. Ask your school or college for more information.

Any candidates who receive a 'fail' or 'No Award' result, may be able to re-sit the following year. This is at the discretion of the school or college to decide whether or not to re-enter candidates for the course.

How is SQA ensuring that national standards are met and maintained?

We have robust quality assurance arrangements in place to support internal assessment in National Qualifications. We use a combination of approaches to externally verify assessments to make sure they continue to meet national standards. More information is available from our Quality Assurance page.

Is SQA providing support to teachers and lecturers to help them understand the national standards required?

Yes. We are currently running an Understanding Standards programme to help teachers and lecturers develop their understanding of the standards required for assessment. Further information on this programme can be found on the Understanding Standards webpage.