Guide to private independent schools

A guide to private and independent schools in Scotland

01 Sep 2022
Guide to private independent schools

The difference between private and independent schools

The terms ‘private’ and ‘independent’ schools are often used interchangeably and usually mean the same thing.

In Scotland, schools tend to describe themselves as independent schools instead of using the term private school. The common denominator is that they are fee-paying schools funded by a combination of charging tuition fees and through donations and investments. They do not receive public funding from the Scottish government. In contrast, state schools in Scotland (also known as state-maintained schools), are owned and operated by local government education authorities. These schools are funded by the Scottish government through taxation.


Independent schools are overseen by a board of governors or trustees. They have a system of governance that ensures an independent operation. They are also classed as being 'independent' because of their freedom to operate outside government regulations, though they conform to official standards of education and student care.

Occasionally schools are set up as a private company, and in this format, they may be run by company directors or trustees.

Admissions process

Most independent schools have some form of pupil selection process as part of their admissions procedure.

Bursaries and scholarships

While independent schools recognise that the family has the primary responsibility to pay tuition fees, many schools have some financial aid programme to help families that would otherwise be unable to afford an independent school. This funding is often provided by the school in the form of means-tested bursaries which are based on the financial need of a family, or scholarship awards if a student has a special skill or ability. The most common type of scholarship is one that is given for a student’s academic, sporting, musical, or artistic ability.

Charitable status

Most independent schools are run on a not-for-profit basis and are set up as charities. The trustees of each school have a responsibility to ensure that the school also offers an element of public benefit and it is not solely run for the benefit of those students who can afford the fees.

National qualifications

In Scotland, schools offer a range of subjects from the different examination boards including Scottish Qualifications Authority exams, GCSEs, A-Levels and the International Baccalaureate.

School Inspections

Education Scotland regularly inspects schools, and the Scottish Care Inspectorate inspects care standards in pre-school provision and boarding schools.

Sub-categories of private and independent schools

Within the private and independent school sector are further sub-categories which include boarding schools, prep schools, public schools and special needs schools.

Boarding schools

A boarding school has residential facilities where pupils live during term time. Boarding school pupils can usually attend on a full-time or weekly basis. There is often a flexi-boarding option as well which might be boarding 3 or 4 nights per week. Many boarding schools also have day students who attend and return to their families in the evenings.

Boarding schools usually offer a longer school day than day schools and an enhanced programme of extra-curricular activities which is made possible by the longer school day.

Prep schools

Prep schools (also known as preparatory and pre-preparatory schools) are independent or private primary schools for children aged 3 to 7 or 8 years (pre-preps) or aged 7 to 11 or 13 (prep), preparing children for all types of secondary schools.

Public schools

In the UK, a ‘public school’ is a term used for some of the more expensive and usually older secondary boarding schools. Nowadays this is a dated term which is gradually being replaced in favour of 'independent school'.

Specialist schools

In Scotland, these are schools which specialise in teaching children with special educational needs. In England, the specialist schools programme was a government initiative which encouraged secondary schools to specialise in certain areas of the curriculum like music and the arts.

You must enable javascript to view this website