A FEW years before David Stow opened his "Normal Seminary" in Glasgow in 1837, to which the modern Faculty of Education at Strathclyde University owes its origins, Sir Walter Scott offered a pessimistic analysis. He saw Scotland's sense of itself crumbling as a result of fundamental economic change and the new political and cultural relationships which were growing with England after a century of union. As Scott put it, "what makes Scotland Scotland is fast disappearing". Before long it would simply become "North Britain", a mere provincial extension of the Union state.
We know now that this did not come to pass. On the contrary, a striking feature of the development of the Union in the Victorian era was not only the robust survival of "Scottishness" but its adaptation and reinvention within a changing world. Pride in Scotland proved to be entirely compatible with loyalty to Great Britain.
One reason for this was the strength and endurance of Scottish civil society and particularly the powerful influence of those three institutions, the church, the legal system and education, which had survived the Union. Education in Scotland during the nineteenth century became not simply a matter of schooling and learning but a badge of identity.
Together with Presbyterianism, education became a way of marking out Scotland's distinctiveness from its powerful neighbour to the south. The belief developed, and has been accepted uncritically until recently, that Scottish education was excellent compared to that of England and most other countries; that even before compulsory schooling after 1872, literacy was well-nigh universal; that the Scottish system was both meritocratic and democratic, resting on a ladder of opportunity which ascended from the famous parish schools through to the universities and enabled the "lads o' pairts" (never girls) to climb towards academic and material success. The Scots came to see themselves as a nation with egalitarian values, the home of the "democratic intellect".
Not all of this can be dismissed as mere myth. Before 1872 education was neither free nor compulsory. But marriage signatures for that date indicate that 94 per cent of bridegrooms and 89 per cent of brides were literate and that there had been a conspicuous increase in female literacy over the previous quarter of a century. Only in the Western Isles and in Glasgow - with its Irish immigrants - were poorer averages recorded.
Remarkably, by the 1860s, the proportion of children on the school roll was close to the levels achieved in Prussia, where elementary education was already compulsory and unmatched elsewhere in Europe.
Scotland also performed well n participation in higher education. Scottish universities were cheap, costing less than one tenth the fees prevailing at Oxbridge, they offered vocational and professional courses in law, divinity and medicine, and they were also very flexible - no entrance examination until the 1890s and junior classes, which provided a form of "remedial" teaching. No other country could equal the ratio of university places to population.
It is in the decades after 1918 that the gulf opens between myth and reality. In higher education, Scotland stagnated while the rest of Europe caught up. The ratio of university places to population was actually lower in 1931 than in 1881. There were working class students but they represented a tiny minority of their class and scarcely penetrated the professional faculties of law and medicine. The number of women increased but no female professor was appointed to a Scottish university until after the Second World War. In research, the whole system slumped towards mediocrity.
From 1923, under the iron grip of the Scottish Education Department, common schooling ended at 12 years. Only a small minority were deemed capable of completing five-year certificate courses while the overwhelming majority ended their education in the "Advanced Division" with lower standards of staffing and resources. From this structure emerged the senior secondaries and junior secondaries which endured through to the introduction of comprehensive education in 1965.
"Secondary education for all", which had been the cry of many educationists after the Great War, was rejected. Instead, in the words of A. M. Paterson, the system became "a particularly Scottish solution of the problems involved in sieving a nation, by the device of mass schooling so as to recruit talent to the leader class while, at the same time, placating and controlling the many who would never reach such heights".
As late as 1951 a mere 5 per cent of school-leavers stayed on to complete the five-year secondary course. It was a statistic which would have drawn approval from George MacDonald, Secretary of the SED in the 1920s, who saw the school population divided between "the majority of distinctly limited intelligence and an extremely important minority drawn from all ranks and classes who are capable of responding to a much more severe call".
It was this official mindset which led to an immense waste of human resources for much of this century and branded the mass of pupils in Scottish schools academic failures. How far it also contributed to a national crisis of confidence in Scotland, from which the nation has only started to recover in recent decades, can only be surmised.
Tom Devine is research professor in Scottish history, Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, Aberdeen University. He is author of the recent The Scottish Nation 1700-2000.