Just over 150 years ago, an act of parliament was passed in Scotland that brought major progress in the provision of education and teaching, creating many significant and wide-reaching improvements.

The 1872 Education (Scotland) Act made education compulsory for all children aged between five and thirteen years old for the first time.

Glasgow Times: classroom scene, London Road Public School, c1916

There had been some legislation relating to education prior to 1872, however. As far back as 1496, James IV instructed that the eldest sons and heirs of large freeholders and barons should attend grammar schools to study subjects deemed necessary for stable local government such as Latin, the law and the arts.

In 1696, further recognition of the importance of education led to the Act for Settling of Schools, which required every parish to have a school and paid schoolmaster.

The funding for these schools came from the local parish heritors. The Presbyterian church was responsible for managing these schools, which continued for almost the next 200 years.

Glasgow Times: domestic education class, Abbotsford Public School, c1916

However, over time the growth in population (particularly in urban areas such as Glasgow) with the decrease in infant mortality, put unsustainable pressure on this system. By the Victorian era it was evident that the network of schools that had developed in the years before could no longer cope.

An inquiry set up by the government in 1864, called The Argyll Commission, examined hundreds of Scottish schools. The commission had this to say about one Glasgow school:

“The school is kept in a dank cellar, a few steps below the gutter-run, in which when we visited it thirty-five children were assembled.

“The smell was hot, foul and oppressive, and contact with any part of the hovel, its furniture or occupants, was pollution. A drunken fellow, apparently a seaman, a friend of the master, was lying asleep across one of the benches at which the children were seated, waited for at the door by some dissolute young women.”

The 1872 Education (Scotland) Act was introduced directly because of the commission’s findings.

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The management of schools and the recruitment of teachers was taken out of the hands of the struggling parish churches and placed into the hands of a new state system.

Nearly 1000 Scottish school boards were created, all of which were legally obliged to provide a school place for each child within their area. In Glasgow this amounted to around 90,000 children. Catholic and Episcopalian schools opted out of the new system, as they wished to protect their denominational status.

We’re fortunate to hold the records for Glasgow, Govan and other local School Boards here at Glasgow City Archives, that show the careful planning for, and impact of, the 1872 Act.

Glasgow Times: Woodside Public School prospectus, 1890

Both Glasgow and Govan School Boards had elected 15 members, which included women such as Lady Dinah Pearce for Govan.

Glasgow School Board progress reports meticulously record each schools’ pupil and teacher figures, and areas of improvement.

Although compulsory, education was not free, and we hold poor relief applications from parents trying to pay for their child’s school fees.

Boards were faced with the massive task of buying land for and the building of suitable schools. Many of the schools were built in red sandstone with separate entrances for girls and boys.

We hold magnificent school architecture plans by various architects including the famous Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Glasgow Times: Scotland Street School plan 1904

Glasgow School Board preferred engaging private architects, rather than employing their own like other school boards, leading to some striking designs such as Mackintosh’s iconic Scotland Street School and Martyrs Public School. (However, it should be noted that Mackintosh did have some minor disputes with the school board over their strict design remit and his own creative ideas.)

Glasgow Times: Scotland Street School plans

As well as the wonderful school buildings, the 1872 Act led to a better quality and standardisation of education and teaching overall.

A new temporary exhibition at Glasgow City Archives (open Monday to Thursday, 10am to 4pm) draws on archival and museum collections to tell the story of the Act.

Everyday items such as jotters, a slate and a teacher’s belt are on display, alongside original records such as school logbooks, and architectural drawings for Martyr’s School and Scotland Street School.