Teaching & Learning


Our pupils encounter something new at each stage of their school life, whether it’s a broader range of subjects, new teachers, a different approach to homework and/or the prospect of subject choices and public exams.

Here’s what you and your child can expect from the academic side of school at each successive stage.

16 - 18

Between the ages of 16 and 18 – sometimes referred to as Key Stage 5 – the vast majority of GSA students study A Levels with the option to extend themselves with Extended Projects and qualify for an AQA Baccalaureate. In Scotland, students study Highers and Advanced Highers. Some schools offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) as an alternative to, or instead of, the A Level.

A Level (Advanced Level)

The A Level has undergone a period of change as a result of Government reform. Instead of a two-stage examination with modules, the A Level has become a single two-year course with one end-of-course final exam. The AS Level has become an entirely separate stand-alone subject and the A2 no longer exists.

Under the old system, AS-levels were studied in Year 12 with exams taken in May-June that were worth 50% of the overall A-level qualification.  Under the new system, all A-level exams will take place at the end of Year 13, with no marks from AS-levels (if taken) contributing to the overall final grade.

In the new reformed qualifications, there is less coursework and fewer practical assessments. Grades will continue to be awarded on an A*-E scale.

What’s happening to AS-levels?

AS-levels still exist, and students may continue to take a separate AS-level qualification at the end of Year 12 before dropping the subject or going on to take the full A-level in Year 13 – but those AS results will not count towards a final A-level grade.

Schools will decide their own policies as to which exams students will be entered for. Some might not enter any students for AS qualifications in order to free up more teaching time for A-levels, while others will continue to work in the same AS/A-level format.
A-level changes in Wales and Northern Ireland

Unlike in England, AS-levels for Welsh and Northern Irish students will continue to count towards overall A-level marks

You will find further information about these reforms on the Ofqual website.

Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)
The Extended Project is part of the English examination boards’ attempt to answer the criticism that A Levels are too narrow. The format is similar to the IB extended essay (see below) and British universities have shown a great deal of interest in it. Combined with A Levels, it can lead to the AQA Baccalaureate diploma (see below).

AQA Baccalaureate

This qualification was launched in 2008 in order to reward extra breadth and depth for students taking A Levels. In order to qualify for the AQA Baccalaureate, students must study and pass:

  • three A-level subjects (a student’s main subject choices)
  • independent learning through the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)
  • skills development through Enrichment activities: work-related learning, community participation and personal development
  • breadth through one AS level, A-level or Level 3 Core Maths qualification, provided that this differs from a student’s main programme of study.

The AQA Baccalaureate is graded pass, merit or distinction on the basis of the grades students achieve in their A Levels and Extended Project.

Find out more: AQA Baccalaureate

IB (International Baccalaureate)
The IB is a two-year alternative course to A Levels. Students study six subjects, normally three at standard level and three at higher level, selected from six subject groups which comprise:

  • language, individuals and societies
  • mathematics and computer science
  • the Arts
  • experimental sciences and second language.

There are, in addition, three core requirements:

  • an extended essay, with a 4000 word limit, on any subject of the student’s choice, requiring individual research
  • a theory of knowledge course which is inter-disciplinary and encourages an appreciation of other cultural perspectives
  • community action, during which students volunteer for some kind of community work.

Assessment takes place at the end of the two years and is a mixture of internal assessments by teachers and external examinations. Grades are determined by a points system which equates to A Level grades. IB is widely accepted by universities, but parents should note that it is necessary to be a good all-rounder to achieve the top grades.

Find out more:  International Baccalaureate

FAQ: How do we decide whether IB or A levels are the right choice for my daughter?

Cambridge Pre-U

The Cambridge Pre-U was designed by a group of schools working with Cambridge University International Examinations board and was first introduced in 2008. Its original objective was to provide a more knowledge-based alternative to A Levels without the structure of the IB. Students study three principal subjects from a choice of 26, each of which is graded individually. They can study a mixture of Pre-U subjects and A Levels if they wish. They also complete an Independent Research Project and follow a Global Perspectives course.

EG A student could study two A Levels and one Pre-U principal subject. These, with the Independent Research Project and Global Perspectives, would form a Cambridge Pre-U Diploma.

Find out more: Cambridge Pre-U

Scottish Qualifications – Higher
The Higher is a one-year course during S5 (equivalent to English year 12 or lower sixth). Students generally take a broad range of five subjects which allows them to keep their options open. Highers are acceptable for entry to Scottish universities and most English universities.

Scottish Qualifications – Advanced Higher
The Advanced Higher is an in-depth study of two or three subjects studied over one year in S6 (equivalent to English year 13 or ‘upper sixth’). It allows students to specialise and to develop the kind of independent learning skills that will be useful at university. If a student gains a Higher and an Advanced Higher in the same subject, UCAS tariff points for the Higher are entirely replaced by the Advanced Higher.

Advanced Highers are highly regarded by both English and Scottish universities. They can sometimes offer subject exemptions or direct entry into the second year of a four year Scottish degree course. New syllabus specifications for the Advanced Higher are being introduced in August 2015.

14 - 16

Years 10 and 11 – sometimes referred to as Key Stage 4 – is when pupils study their GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) or, as is the case in many GSA schools, iGCSEs (international GCSE). The iGCSE is not included in the Government’s Department for Education league tables. However, many experienced teachers believe it to be more rigorous and demanding than the GCSE and, as such, a better preparation for A Level study and higher education.
In Scotland, this stage equates to years S3 and S4. Pupils in S3 study National Qualifications.

If your child attends one of the small number of GSA schools which finish at age 16, it’s a good idea to consider where she will go next as early as possible. Year 10 is a better time to review this as pupils tend to be preoccupied with exams during year 11.


It is common for pupils in GSA schools to study 10 or more GCSE subjects. Exactly which subjects are taken is determined in year 9.

GCSEs are currently in the process of change due to Government reform.  GCSE grades A* to G in England are being phased out in favour of a new grade scale numbered from 9 to 1, with 9 being the highest grade.  English Language, English Literature and Mathematics were the first qualifications in 2017 to get the new grading system. They were first taught from September 2015.

The new GCSE content has been designed to be more challenging, with fewer grade 9s expected to be awarded than A*s and will allow better differentiation between students of different abilities.  The new GCSEs are ‘linear’, which means they are exam focused and that all those exams come at the end of the course. This differs from the previous ‘modular’ courses, which assessed using both exams and course work.

Most subjects will have the 9 to 1 grading by 2018, with the reminder following in 2019. During this period of transition, students may receive a mixture of letter and number grades.

There is a core of compulsory GCSE subjects which every pupil is required to study, plus a number of optional subjects which gives your child an element of choice. The compulsory subjects are English, mathematics and science. Optional subjects vary from school to school and involve at least one course in each of four groups:

  • Arts (including art and design, music, dance and drama)
  • Design and Technology
  • Humanities (history and geography)
  • Modern Foreign Languages

Whilst your child doesn’t have to choose a subject from each of these groups, at this stage it’s a good idea for her to have a broad base of subjects so that she doesn’t restrict her future study and career options. If she has a particular university course in mind, find out which A Level subjects the university demands and make sure her choice of GCSEs will not prevent her from studying them.

Scottish Qualifications – Nationals

The National Qualification was introduced in 2013/14 with an emphasis on ‘deeper learning’. It is a one-year course consisting of five levels. Pupils study for their Nationals during S4, after spending S3 continuing to receive a broad general education. It is usual to take eight or nine subjects.

Some GSA schools in Scotland prefer to teach the English GCSE curriculum. Pupils in those which follow the Scottish curriculum tend to sit National 5 level, which is equivalent to the old Standard Grade (Credit). National 5 courses are assessed through a mixture of exams and coursework (assignments, portfolios, practical activities etc).

11 - 14

Years 7 to 9 – often referred to as ‘Key Stage 3’ – is the time when your child is likely to develop strong interests and enthusiasms for particular subjects and may even start to think about careers.

The first big decisions come in year 9 when your child must choose subjects to study for her GCSEs. Some schools encourage pupils to take as many GCSEs as possible, but in reality universities and employers look for quality rather than quantity. So, whilst it is usual for pupils at GSA schools to sit 10 or more GCSEs, in certain circumstances it is more sensible to focus on getting nine excellent grades rather than twelve slightly lower ones. Your child’s teachers can help you decide what is best. When choosing GCSEs (see 14-16, above) all schools recommend opting for a broad, balanced range of subjects.

In some schools students take Key Stage 2 tests – known as ‘SATS’ – at the end of year 6. Along with most independent schools, the majority of GSA schools do not do Key Stage testing, and many do not use these test results in any part of their admissions process.


In Scotland, these year groups are called S1 to S3. Pupils study a broad, balanced curriculum up to and including S3, at which point they typically choose eight subjects to study for their National Qualifications (see 14-16, above). However, some GSA schools in Scotland prefer to study the English curriculum.

FAQ: A parents’ guide to homework


Many GSA senior schools have their own pre-prep and prep / junior school educating children from reception all the way up to year 6. Some begin at year 3 (age 7) and welcome applications at this stage. The great benefit of sending your child to a GSA school is that we are not restricted by the national curriculum. In practice, our schools tend to follow a rich extended curriculum, providing pupils with a number of additional learning experiences.

Early Years Foundation Stage (Reception)
Pupils in GSA Reception classes learn through play. The emphasis is on plenty of interaction to encourage communication, language and social skills as well as emotional and physical development.

This is the final year of the national curriculum’s Early Years Foundation Stage which is the minimum standard any organisation providing formal childcare or education to children up to the age of five is required to offer.

Key Stage 1 (Years 1-2, age 5-7)
GSA schools often go beyond the confines of the national curriculum. It is not unusual, for example, for our pupils to begin learning a modern foreign language in addition to the topics prescribed by Key Stage 1 of the curriculum. For many GSA pupils it is in year 2 that they first have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument.

You can read more about Key Stage 1 of the national curriculum on the Government’s website.

Key Stage 2 (Years 3-6, age 7-11)
Many GSA schools go beyond the limits of the prescribed Key Stage 2 curriculum. Lessons in modern foreign languages are usual and pupils are able to try out additional subjects and activities – such as Latin and chess – in lunch time and after school clubs. It’s a good idea to allow your child to try lots of different things so that she can discover what she really enjoys.

You can read more about Key Stage 2 of the national curriculum on the Government’s website.

A small number of GSA schools use the teacher-assessed SATs (Standard Attainment Tests) to monitor pupils’ progress in English, maths and science in year 6. Please check with individual schools if you wish to know whether or not they use SATS.


3 - 5

Some GSA schools have their own nursery school or department which takes children from as early as age 3. Parents value the fact that their children experience a seamless transition between nursery and school.

Some GSA nurseries provide full wraparound care with additional holiday provision while others are term time only. Most allow you to ease your child in gently by allowing them to attend, for example, three days or five mornings a week. Each school has its own individual policy.

All GSA nurseries follow the national curriculum’s Early Years Foundation Stage which is the minimum standard any organisation providing formal childcare or education to children up to the age of five is required to offer.

FAQ: Should by daughter be starting phonics and bringing reading books home from nursery? How do I help her?

Care & Attention

Looking after your child’s emotional well-being is just as important to us as helping her to achieve her academic potential. That’s why our schools take an interest in and help to develop pupils’ personal interests and any learning differences she may have. It’s important to us that your child is happy, in and out of school, and that she has supportive adults around her.  Your child’s form tutor is at the heart of this support.

GSA schools also take particular care to monitor individual children, with systems in place to make sure teachers with academic responsibilities communicate regularly with those with pastoral responsibilities. These systems, together with our small class sizes, aim to make sure that minor problems are spotted and dealt with before they become major difficulties.

All GSA schools have well documented policies on anti-bullying, special educational needs and child protection (‘safeguarding’) and are required by law to publish these – and other policies – on their website.

Special Educational Needs

Children learn in different ways. Sometimes these differences are more pronounced and require extra help. In such cases, GSA schools use specialists from their own teaching staff as well as from external agencies to create personalised learning plans and provide individual support.

New pupils are screened for common conditions such as dyslexia and training is available to keep special educational needs (‘SEN’) staff abreast of the latest developments in SEN teaching.

GSA schools have enabled pupils with learning differences caused by conditions such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, Asperger’s syndrome and visual anomalies to achieve high academic standards. However, not all schools are equipped to support every learning need – please check our schools’ individual SEN policies to be certain of their provision.

Gifted & Talented

Some children are what are known as ‘gifted and talented’. Their pace of learning may be beyond that typically experienced by children of their age and they may require more stimulation in order to continue learning and prevent boredom.

Many GSA schools are highly experienced in teaching gifted and talented children and provide extension activities and projects as a matter of course. Lunchtime and after school clubs often include discussion or exploration based options that require the kind of intellectual rigour and critical thinking practice such children thrive on. In addition, it is not unknown for schools to arrange inter-school activity programmes to bring gifted and talented pupils from different schools together.

Sometimes schools will allow a particularly gifted student to sit public examinations early, though this is not always in a child’s best interests; each case requires an individual approach.

Religious Beliefs

Whatever you and your child’s religious beliefs, you will find a GSA school to welcome you. In fact, the vast majority of GSA schools are happy to welcome children of all religions and enjoy celebrating a wide variety of faiths.

Assemblies are a mixture of secular and religious. Those schools that have religious assemblies tend to provide Christian worship but you will find that many also provide alternative worship facilities, which may or may not be formally led. Please ask the particular schools that interest you how they provide for different faiths.