What are the most popular subjects in Scotland?

Tes Scotland analysis also reveals which subjects are gaining popularity and which are losing numbers

Henry Hepburn

What are the most popular subjects in Scotland?

Earlier this month the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) published annual data on qualifications at all levels.

Tes Scotland has examined the figures to find the most popular subjects at Higher level in 2019, a list that includes all 27 subjects with at least 1,000 entries. Also included are four subjects which had more than 1,000 entries in 2016 – the first year that only the new version of the Higher was run – but which have now dipped below 1,000 entries.

In brackets are the number of Higher entries for each of the 31 subjects in 2016. This offers a better comparison that the figures for 2015, the first year in which the new version of Higher was offered, as for that year only the old Higher was also available.

Finally, below that, we also take a look at which subjects are losing popularity at Higher level, and which are on the rise, by calculating the percentage difference between entries in 2016 and 2019 for each of the 31 subjects.

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The figures suggest that social subjects are being squeezed, with geography, in particular, seeing a fall in entries of almost 16 per cent between 2016 and 2019.

But there are even bigger falls in some subjects, including computing science (27.5 per cent) and French (25.4 per cent) and – the biggest fall proportionally – philosophy (34.8 per cent).

Few subjects have seen rises in entries, with Spanish among those to increase (17.5 per cent), although by far the biggest rise proportionally is in politics (55.3%).

For context, overall entries fell from 197,750 in 2016 to 185,914 in 2019, a drop of almost 6 per cent. In italics are all the subjects where the percentage drop in entries is Higher than the overall percentage drop in entries across all subjects.


Subjects with most entries at Higher in 2019, in descending order (2016 entries in brackets)

English: 35,461 (36,345)

Maths: 18,626 (18,871)

Chemistry: 10,047 (10,077)

History: 9,987 (11,165)

PE: 9,896 (9,714)

Modern studies: 8,653 (9,849)

Physics: 8,325 (9,129)

Business management: 8,322 (9,108)

Biology: 7,685 (7,492)

Geography: 6,867 (8,157)

Human biology: 6,259 (5,990)

Art and design: 5,233 (5,500)

Music: 5,067 (5,181)

Administration and IT: 3,770 (3,963)

Religious, moral and philosophical studies: 3,598 (4,383) 

Graphic communication: 3,497 (4,611)

French: 3,417 (4,581)

Psychology: 3,410 (3,589)

Computing science: 3,228 (4,454)

Spanish: 3,054 (2,600)

Drama: 2,884 (3,115)

Photography: 2,473 (2,260)

Design and manufacture: 2,248 (3,079)

Accounting: 1,222 (1,364)

Politics: 1,213 (781)

Health and food technology: 1,191 (1,448)

Engineering science: 1,110 (1,029)

Media: 999 (1,055)

Care: 838 (1,130)

German: 787 (1,020)

Philosophy 656 (1,006)


Here are the swings in uptake when comparing Higher entries in 2019 and 2016 (those in italics are subjects which exceed the overall 6 per cent reduction in entries at Higher):

Decrease in entries between 2016 and 2019

Philosophy: -34.8%

Computing science: -27.5%

Design and manufacture: -27.0%

Care: -25.8%

French: -25.4%

Graphic communication: -24.2%

German: -22.8%

Religious, moral and philosophical studies: -17.9%

Health and food technology: -17.7%

Geography: -15.8%

Modern studies: -12.1%

History: -10.6%

Accounting: -10.4%

Physics: -8.8%

Business management: -8.6%

Drama: -7.4%

Media: -5.3%

Psychology: -5.0%

Administration and IT: -4.9%

Art and design: -4.9%

English: -2.4%

Music: -2.2%

Maths: -1.3%

Chemistry: -0.3%

Increase in entries between 2016 and 2019

PE: +1.9%

Biology: +2.6%

Human biology: +4.5%

Engineering science: +7.8%

Photography: +9.4%

Spanish: +17.5%

Politics: +55.3%

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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