Scotland has long enjoyed an international reputation as historically one of the best-educated societies in the world. The foundation for this reputation was laid in the 17th century and was the result of Calvinist emphasis on reading the Bible. Putting men and women in touch with the word of God was seen by the Scottish authorities and clergy as of paramount importance. To achieve this goal schools were paid for by the Church of Scotland and local landowners were established in all rural parishes and burghs by an Act of Parliament in 1696. These educational establishments were run by the Church and were open to all boys and girls regardless of social status. The democratic nature of the Scottish system so impressed the 18th century writer Daniel Defoe that he remarked that while England was a land ‘full of ignorance’, in Scotland the ‘poorest people have their children taught and instructed’. The openness of the Scottish system ran all the way from the school room to the university. A talented working class boy the ‘lad o’pairts’ through intelligence and hard work and by utilising a generous system of bursaries was able to gain a university education, something largely unthinkable in England in the 18th century.

in 1843 George Lewis published a book – ‘Scotland a Half Educated Nation’ – pointing to the growing failure of the Scottish system to cater for the educational needs of an expanding population, particularly in urban areas. Indeed, as early as 1818 it was estimated that around two-thirds of school children were receiving an education outside the public system in what were known as private ‘adventure’ schools, in which the parents bore the cost and the Church had no say. The situation was further complicated when in 1843 the Disruption occurred in the Church of Scotland leading to the formation of the Free Church and the establishment of hundreds of new schools. Another problem was the arrival of thousands of immigrants from Ireland for whom little, if any, education provision existed. The poverty of the Irish meant that many parents could not afford school fees nor raise the necessary funds towards teachers’ salaries and school buildings.

Twenty or so years later the situation had improved very little. In Glasgow in 1857 it was estimated that under 50% of the five to ten age cohort were receiving education. Even in the relatively highly educated north-east of the country two-fifths of children of agricultural labourers were said to be ‘uneducated’. The poor record of attendance was the result of the continuing demand for child labour. A study of Clackmannanshire showed that the demand for child labour increased as a whole by 53% in the period 1851-1862. Poor parents sent their children to earn rather than learn. The situation, as TC Smout has remarked, ‘was a mess’ What did the ‘half educated nation’ learn while in school? The emphasis was placed on the 3 Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic. However, there were gender differences within this restricted curriculum. Boys in the Church schools received instruction in foreign and ancient languages, while girls were generally kept to domestic training. Teaching classics to girls was seen as a waste of time since school and employment were commonly viewed as mere interludes on the road to marriage and child-rearing. Moreover, in Victorian times domestic service was the largest single employer of female labour, thus training in domestic economy for working-class girls was seen as necessary by the authorities. In spite of the emphasis on rote learning and the 3Rs, the erratic attendance of children meant that the standard of literacy was not high. Work on Clackmannanshire shows that in 1834 2,249 were being taught to read, of which only 1,137 were also being taught to write. Among adults the situation was even worse. Of 80 criminal offenders, 21 could neither read nor write, and 37 could only read or write imperfectly. However, in spite of the inadequacies of the Scottish system, particularly in industrial areas with high concentrations of immigrants, literacy rates were far higher in Scotland than in England. The test of literacy was essentially a crude one: the ability to sign one’s name on a marriage certificate. On this basis it was found that in 1855, 89% of Scottish males could sign their name compared with 70% in England and Wales. For women the figures were 77 and 70% respectively. There were, however, some regional differences within Scotland. In the majority of Lowland counties 90% of males could sign their names, and it was equally high in some Highland counties such as Argyll. By contrast, in the more remote parishes of the Highlands and Islands rates were significantly lower. Although most children in Scotland were exposed to education, as we have seen the quality was variable and the attendance poor. Moreover, institutions such as the Church were finding it increasingly difficult to provide education for a rapidly growing population. Applications to the state for educational subsidies became increasingly common – a factor which led to state inspection of grantaided schools – and it became apparent that the system would collapse without state aid. Various attempts were made in the 1850s and 60s to introduce a nonsectarian, publicly financed education system failed in Parliament due to the interference of English MPs afraid that a similar system in England would lead to the loss of the privileges of the established Church of England. However, a government-sponsored commission into the state of Scottish education in 1867 – the Argyll Commission – confirmed the views of the critics and the state was spurred into action.


The Education (Scotland) Act of 1872 laid the basis for the modern education system. The most immediate thing it did was to take control of education out of the hands of the churches, with the exception of the Catholic and Episcopalian churches, and place it in the hands of popularly elected school boards. A nonsectarian system of public schooling was established and subject to the general control of the Scotch Education Department (SED), based in Whitehall, London. It was not until the Scottish Office was created in 1885 that the SED had a measure of independence from the English Department. A second consequence of the Act was to make schooling compulsory for children in the age group 5-13, although exemption was made for children ten and over who could prove that they had achieved proficiency in grade five of the curriculum. The nominal leaving age was raised to fourteen in 1883 and education was free. By 1908 the system of exemptions was abandoned and precise entry and leaving dates were introduced. The 1872 Act was successful in providing a broad framework for a national system of education. Within thirty years of its passing illiteracy had been eliminated in both the Highlands and the Lowlands, and much was done to improve attendance rates. In Glasgow, prior to the 1872 Act, only 60% of children ever attended school, and of these 10,000 were regular absentees; however, by the end of the 19th century schooling was universal with places for all children. With the exception of France, Scotland had more children in the age group 5-14 attending school than all other advanced European countries in 1910-11. In spite of this the legislation failed to address several important educational issues. Firstly, it dealt only with elementary education and had nothing to say regarding the provision of secondary education; secondly, the school boards were dominated by clerical and business interests and controlled from London, with the result that the new educational system did not reflect the wishes of the wider society or cater for their aspirations; and, finally, they did little to improve pupil/teacher ratios, particularly in poorer areas where class sizes were between 60 and 70. In Catholic schools the position was even worse with a teacher/pupil ratio of 1:150.

(Source. Scran )