Education in Scotland
Scots education is highly thought of throughout the world. Scotland, which had five
universities at a time when England only had two, has a long history of universal public
The Scottish education system has maintained distinct differences from other parts of the United Kingdom. Traditionally, their system has emphasized breadth across a range of subjects, while the English system focused on depth over a smaller range of subjects at secondary school level.
The Scottish summer holidays run from the end of June to the middle of August, usually two weeks ahead of those in England although the dates of holidays are left to individual local education authorities
Early History. During the medieval period, Scotland followed the typical pattern
of European education with the Catholic church organizing schooling. Church and grammar
schools were founded in all the main burghs and some small towns. Early examples included
the High School of Glasgow in 1124 and the High School of Dundee in 1239. The foundation
of the University of St. Andrews in 1413 was followed by Glasgow in 1451 and Aberdeen in
1496. The Education Act of 1496 introduced compulsory education for the eldest sons of
The Protestant Reformation brought the reshaping of the national Church of Scotland and in 1561 John Knox set out a national program for spiritual reform, including 1) a school at every church, 2) a schoolmaster for every village, 3) a college in every “notable town”, 4) help for poor boys and girls to go to school, 5) encouragement for all “fit to study” to attend university, 6) education of rich children at their parent’s expense.
Early progress was made in reforming the universities, and new universities were formed, at Edinburgh in 1582, and Marischal College, Aberdeen in 1593 at a time when Scotland’s population was under a million people.
Golden Age. The Scottish Education Act of 1696, heralded the first National
system of education in the world since ancient Sparta, and spawned the Scottish
Enlightenment, which in turn spearheaded the European Enlightenment. By the end of the
17th century a considerable proportion of the Scottish population was literate and the
education system had been developed considerably in advance of anything known in England
or most other European countries.
School life began at the age of five, though many began at seven after attending an unofficial dame-school. After five years study, some pupils would go on to a larger burgh school or possibly straight to university. School was attended six days a week for 10-12 hours a day, starting at 6 a.m. with one hour breaks for breakfast and lunch.
When in class, the Bible was the reading text and all learnt reading and writing. Latin was taught to some older children and arithmetic was taught in the burghs. Though the children of the nobility were often educated at home by tutors, by far the greatest part of the Scottish gentry sent their sons to the local schools with their tenants’ children.
By the 1790s, all Scots could read, regardless of wealth, gender, status or location. Each town already had a sizable library with religious and secular books. The 18th century brought a golden age of Scottish education, contributing to the intellectual advances and sending professionally-trained or commercially-talented Scots out into the world. Teaching was in English. The universities also attracted English students, particularly religious Nonconformists who were excluded from Oxford and Cambridge, which required them to sign up to the Anglican faith.
Scottish universities gained a good reputation and Edinburgh became the medical center of Europe; many students were attracted to the Royal College of Physicians and the College of Surgeons. The University of Edinburgh grew from 400 students at the start of the century to 2,000 by 1815. Also in Edinburgh around 1760, numerous private schools opened, four “English schools” were founded, and the Royal High School doubled in size in 1790, claiming to be the largest school in Britain.
Each parish school usually had one schoolmaster, who would take 50-60 pupils. Children were not pressured to attend for more than four years or at all. The gap was increasingly filled by private schools funded entirely by fees, known as “adventure schools.” Even in the 1690s such schools were used to supplement the parish schools, with the kirk (church) paying the fees for poor pupils. An “adventure school”, opened in Alloway in 1765, taught Robert Burns to read and write. Thirty years later, even servant girls had copies of Burns poems and other popular literature of the day.
In the Scottish Highlands, in addition to problems of distance and physical isolation, most people spoke Gaelic which few teachers could understand. Societies arose to teach the English language and end Roman Catholicism, while through the Gaelic Society, schools taught the Bible in Gaelic. The overall effect contributed to the erosion of Highland culture.
Many of the teachers in private and charitable schools were female, and the introduction from England of the pupil-teacher system in 1846 also facilitated the entry of women into teaching.
In 1864, Scotland had by far the largest percentage of primary, secondary and tertiary educated population in Europe, until Prussia caught up in the late 19th Century. England had one of the lowest percentages in Europe, with Scotland sending twice as many students to university as the English did. Attending Secondary school: Scotland – 1 child in 205; Prussia – 1 child in 249; France – 1 child in 570; England – 1 child in 1300.
Education became compulsory for all children between 5-13 with the Education Act 1872. At this point, 80 percent of Scottish children were already in school. The Scots usage of the term “public school” has continued from this point to the present, despite awareness of the different usage in England.
The school leaving age was raised to 14 in 1883, and a Leaving Certificate Examination in 1888 was begun to set national standards for secondary education. Until 1890 school fees still had to be paid. In 1904 it became possible to learn Gaelic as a subject in its own right rather than as a means of acquiring English.