Donald Withrington opens a five-part series on Scotland's role in the history of education.
All barronis and frehalders that are of substance," demanded James IV in 1496, are to put their eldest sons and heirs "to the scuilis", there to attain perfect Latin before going on to university, "sua that thai may have knawledge and understanding of the lawis". This attempt to improve local justice, directed mainly at the Lowlands of Scotland, was paralleled by a series of military forays by the king into the Highlands and Western Isles, in an effort to carry the king's law (in place of that of the Lord of the Isles) into these difficult and rebellious areas. The first direct intervention in Scottish education by the state was thus clearly political, part of a government programme of centralising, administrative improvement.
Political in motivation, too, were those interventions which followed a century and more later, in the aftermath of the religious and social convulsion of the Scottish Reformation. An impoverished Kirk's pleas for state backing for its plans to secure schooling for all, at least the teaching of reading and writing, were successively turned aside after 1560. Localities were left to provide as well as they could for themselves, and had done so with some success in the Lowlands by the early decades of the 17th century. Then, curiously, in 1616 and in 1633, the Privy Council and Parliament stepped in. But why?
The answer lies, again, in the demands of the political situation. In the early 1610s and again in the early 1630s, the governments of James VI and Charles I had been plagued by the continuing rebelliousness of the western Highlands and Isles. Churches and schools together would civilise Gaeldom. In 1633, indeed, the it was plainly stated that schools should be established "if not alreadie provydit", and they had already been widely provided throughout the Lowlands. This parliamentary intervention was not needed (as so often assumed) to initiate the system of parochial schooling but rather to extend it and to do so for the state's particular benefit, into areas where government was weak. More generally, however, these acts confirmed by statute - incidentally perhaps - the national character of the parochial system, and made the support of local schools a direct legal responsibility of the whole community (by a tax on landholdings), and not a burden only on the parents who sent their children to them: a system intended to be inclusive, universal and legally enforceable was to be both public and national.
Twice again in the 17th century, Parliament passed Acts in favour of parochial education, in 1646 and 1696, on both occasions in periods of presbyterian ascendancy. More significantly, these were also times of severe famine and social upheaval which brought serious insecurity, if not wholesale impoverishment, to those, like schoolmasters, whose livings were wholly dependent on locally agreed arrangements for the payment of stipends and of fees. These education Acts were mainly intended to be sharp reminders by the state of the need for parishes, even in harsh times, to continue to provide for their schoolteachers and hence for the education of their children.
The 1696 Act did not signal any innovation, but strengthened the legal basis of the existing structure in order to give it greater stability. Its function was to "settle" schools; that is, to make permanent and secure the already near complete coverage of such public schooling not only in the Lowlands but also by then in large tracts of the Highlands and Isles.
Yet the effectiveness of this legislation could still depend on its acceptability to a particular parish and on the support of the local leadership there. When a social survey of the country was made in the 1790s, in Sir John Sinclair's Statistical Account, the decline of public schooling in many parishes was made plain. Parents were sending their children to private schools of better standard than that found in parish schools, which had been left in the hands of inadequate teachers often because better ones could not be attracted by meagre stipends seriously diminished by inflation. Sinclair argued strongly that only the strong direction of government could ensure that localities would provide effectively those public services which the nation's populace had the right to expect.
One of the direct results of Sinclair's efforts was the Act of 1803, the first to be passed on education by the post-Union Parliament. This built directly on the Scottish Act of 1696: and yet, while it could be said only to have amended the existing legislation, it proved to be profound and far-reaching in its effects. It reconstructed public schooling, and was to bring in a period of astonishing development in the old parochial system, reviving its fortunes (and those of its more energetic teachers) and generally increasing standards.
Above all, the Act quietly removed from the Church and put into the hands of the state (the heritors, the county commissioners of supply, local magistrates and JPs, and most importantly the sheriffs) vital aspects of the oversight and security of these schools and their teachers, questions about salary (fee rates as well as the stented stipend), matters of curriculum, questions about school accommodation; even the disciplining of teachers was more often referred directly to JPs and sheriffs. By the 1830s and 1840s, indeed, there was little argument in Scotland against the view that it was the state's responsibility directly to reform, extend and improve national education, in schools and universities alike. Evangelical churchmen, such as Thomas Chalmers, stressed the national character of the educational system (and the state's duty in nurturing it, and where necessary paying for it) with the aim of increasing pressure on government to confirm and enhance the position of the Church of Scotland.
As Scottish society became more pluralist in its religious affiliations, and particularly after the Church's self-inflicted wound of the Disruption in 1843, governments of all hues were increasingly able to shrug off claims that the Established Church (or, indeed, the churches) should be retained as partners in the provision and supervision of schooling. Inspectors of schools might be affiliated to particular churches but they were still government inspectors. In 1872, when the national system of schools in Scotland was radically revised, the claims and counter-claims of the churches in Scotland for an assured place of responsibility and trust could be virtually ignored.
And yet the 1872 Act was not quite so remarkable in its Scottish context as is sometimes suggested by remarks about its "sweeping" and "dramatic" changes or about the state's then taking responsibility "for the first time" of Scottish education. It was evolutionary, and contained little that should greatly surprise us. The demand for the state to intervene was not generally for the purpose of providing school places, for that had really become a minor issue. The real function of the state was seen rather in raising standards, equalising as far as possible those standards throughout the country (often the "ideal" parochial school, teaching an extensive elementaryadvanced curriculum, as the exemplar), and in giving proper weight to the educational interests of children against the cupidity of uncaring and venal parents.
State intervention in Scottish education has a long and generally a highly respectable history. It has importantly had, in varying degrees at different periods perhaps but still very generally, the strong support and goodwill of the nation. It is about the manner and not at all about the fact of state intervention that historians of Scottish education might wish today to raise their own doubts and questions.
* Next week: David Bell, chief education officer, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Donald Withrington is reader in Scottish history, Aberdeen University.