victorian school bell

A History of Education in Edinburgh & Scotland

The 1811 Riots

The poorer folk of Georgian Edinburgh had no access to education, and as a result the city was plagued by gangs of youths who had nothing better to do. Areas such as the Grassmarket, the Canongate and Niddry Street were especially notorious for trouble. 

On Hogmanay 1811, the gangs decided to join together for an almighty riot. They walked through the streets armed with bludgeons, attacking whoever they could find – one group even raided a midnight service at the Tron Kirk. When the police came, the gangs threw stones and orange boxes at them. 

Two people died that night (one of them a police officer, Dugald Campbell) and several gang members were arrested. Some were transported (sent abroad as punishment), but three in particular were found guilty of murder and hanged. All three were under the age of eighteen. 

The city was in shock. Church leaders decided the best way to prevent such an event from ever happening again was to make education widely available, especially to the poor.

Leith Wynd Sessional School

To begin with in 1812, a Sunday School was formed in every parish. Then in 1813, Edinburgh’s first Sessional School opened in Leith Wynd. Children came from all across the city to learn how to read, write and count. Because there were so many of them and only one school master, they used a monitorial system to teach them. 

In this particular school there was one large schoolroom which had all the pupils’ desks arranged around the walls, with the school master’s desk in the middle. The school master would instruct ten of the oldest children, then they would go and repeat what they’d learned to the younger ones. In 1818 they switched to the Madras system, where children learned in groups of thirty. 

In 1824 the school moved to Market Street, and at one point there were as many as six hundred pupils in attendance.

Teacher Training

In 19th century Scotland, teachers didn’t get any professional training. Some had been to university, but others had almost no qualifications at all. In some areas the poor standard of education pupils were receiving was major cause for concern. In 1835 a formal teacher training programme was developed and a training department was formed within the Market Street Sessional School. 

In 1837 the school was renamed the Normal and Sessional School of Edinburgh. The training department became so large that the school outgrew the building and had to move to Johnston Terrace.

Dominies & School Mistresses

Dominie is the Scots and Scottish English word for a male school master. Here in the Lowlands, the dominie would teach the older children – especially the boys – in the parish school. In private schools, female school mistresses taught the younger children and usually the older girls too.

The 1872 Education (Scotland) Act

The 1872 Education (Scotland) Act was controversial. The now very well established Scottish teaching profession saw it as the Anglicisation of our education system. They considered both the English curriculum and its teaching standards to be inferior, because there were more female teachers than male. 

Sure enough, after 1872 there was a dramatic increase in female teachers in Scotland, which was seen as undermining the traditional dominie’s high-status role in the community. To make it abundantly clear that female teachers were not the dominie’s equal, women were paid far less than their male counterparts. 

The 1872 Education (Scotland) Act made going to school compulsory for all children aged 5 to 13 years old. At the same time, the Church handed all 548 of its schools in Scotland over to the newly formed School Boards (but continued to influence teacher training). 

In 1901 the school leaving age was raised to age 14.

The Ragged Schools

Despite the Church’s best efforts, the sessional school couldn’t reach every child in Edinburgh. When Rev Thomas Guthrie arrived in the city to take over as minister at Greyfriars Kirk in 1837, he was horrified to see how poor and unprovided for many of the children in the Old Town were. 

Guthrie converted a room underneath the church for making porridge and soup and started to teach the children who turned up for a free meal. Soon he had a regular class attending, and he created two more similar ragged schools in other parts of the neighbourhood. 

A ‘ragged school’ was a school set up especially for children living in extreme poverty. The idea was developed by a shoemaker from Portsmouth in England called John Pounds. 

In 1847, Guthrie set up another ragged school in a building on Ramsay Lane, just off the Royal Mile. It was called the Edinburgh Original Ragged Industrial School, and like the others it taught reading, writing and arithmetic. It also trained its pupils for the workplace, provided them with religious education and made sure they had enough food. 

These schools reduced the number of children in prison by three quarters, and stopped them from having to beg on the streets. 

Guthrie died in Sussex in 1873, and his body was brought back to Edinburgh for burial. 30,000 people came out to watch the funeral procession, and by his graveside stood his wife, his children, and 230 former pupils from his ragged schools.

Blackboards & Coloured Chalk Invented in Edinburgh

Blackboards and coloured chalk were invented in Edinburgh. James Pillans was born here in 1778. He was educated at the Royal High School and then went on to study at the University of Edinburgh. 

After graduating he worked as a tutor for several years before successfully applying for the post of Rector at his old high school, beginning work there in 1810. He introduced the monitorial system to the school and improved on the teaching of Greek, classical geography and Latin verse. 

Having invented blackboards and coloured chalk, he used them in his geography lessons, describing their use in his 1854 book Physical and Classical Geography.

Some Important Dates in the History of Scottish Education 

1496: First Education Act, making schooling for the sons of barons and wealthy landowners compulsory from the age of eight. The idea was to ensure that those who would become judges or sheriffs would have a proper understanding of the law.

1696: The Scottish Parliament’s Act for Settling of Schools decreed that there should be a school in every parish, provided and paid for through the church. Teaching consisted mainly of the 3Rs and religion. Over the years, many different types of schools started up and by the 1860s, there was no coherent system, no central control or organisation and widely varying standards of education.

1837: The first teacher training college in the British Isles was set up in Dundas Vale, Glasgow.

1872: The Education Act Scotland Act provided compulsory, universal education for ages 5-13 (except for those over ten years old who had proficiency in Grade 5), controlled by local school boards and subject to inspection. Control by churches was taken away (except in Roman Catholic and Episcopalian schools), creating a non-sectarian system of largely free public schools.

1888: The Scottish Education Department introduced a Leaving Certificate Exam to set national standards and in 1890 school fees were abolished, creating a state-funded national system of basic education and common examinations.

1908: The 1908 Education Act provided free school meals for needy children. Compulsory medical inspection in schools was introduced and parents were made legally responsible for their children’s attendance. The higher-class schools that taught older children the classics, modern languages,  mathematics and science became known as “secondary” schools.

1918: The 1918 Education Act raised the leaving age to 15   (although it was not brought in until nearly the end of 1918, because of the of high unemployment and the results of World War I). Roman Catholic schools were brought into the Scottish system of free education.

1944: The ban on women remaining in teaching after marriage was lifted.

1962: The Scottish Certificate of Education replaced the previous Leaving Certificate.

1982: The use of the belt/tawse as punishment was banned, although the ban was not enforced until 1987.