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Scottish Education - Schools and University
Chapter XV - Third Period (1696 - 1872). Parish Schools

BESIDES the schools above dealt with whose aim was mainly the promotion of elementary education, there is yet another class, the parish schools. To these from the work done by many of them in higher branches, as being part and parcel of Knox's scheme in the First Book of Discipline, tolerably full references have been made in dealing with the burgh schools of our second period.

Knox's scheme, though very partially carried out, contained all that characterises Scottish education from 1560 till now. He saw the necessity of compulsory education for all, of provision being made by bursaries for boys of promise, who required pecuniary help at the university, and the propriety of boys not apt for learning betaking themselves to useful handicrafts. As to suitable remuneration for teachers, he pawkily remarked, "It is not to be supposed that all men will dedicate themselves and their children, that they luyke for no worldlie commoditie. But this cankered nature quhilk we bear is provokit to follow vertue, when it seeth honour and profeit annexed to the same."

The name, parish schools, conveys no definite idea of the very varied character of the work done in them, depending, as it did, on local and other conditions. In many cases the instruction was far short of John Knox's conception, and little more than elementary. In others it was sufficiently advanced to entitle them to be classed among secondary schools, as being fitted to prepare students for entering the junior classes in the university. This though imperfectly realised was the original aim of the Scottish parish school, and was never lost sight of in all the acts passed between the time of Knox and the Act of 1872, the preamble of which states that "it is desirable to amend and extend the provisions of the law of Scotland on the subject of education, in such manner that the means of procuring efficient education for their children may be furnished and made available to the whole people of Scotland." We have confirmation of this in Section 67 of that act "Provided, that due care shall be taken by the Scotch Education Department, in the construction of such minutes, that the standard of education which now exists in the public schools shall not be lowered, and that, as far as possible, as high a standard shall be maintained in all schools inspected by the said Department."

It is important again to point out that, unlike the English Act of 1870, the Act of 1872 contains no such expression as elementary education, and further that, incredible as it may seem, it is the fact that all the subjects till lately required for the Cambridge 'Little-Go' examination were at the end of the 18th century in some districts not seldom taught in village parish schools.

It cannot however be denied that there is a darker side to the picture in respect of both teaching and accommodation. The records of Kirk Sessions pretty much all over the country during the whole of the 18th century contain constant references to schools vacant and teachers apparently half starved. In 1735 there were in Ayrshire twelve parishes in which there was no school [Edgar's Church Life, II, 75.], and in the Highlands in 1758 there were I75 parishes in which there was neither school nor schoolmaster, churches, barns, byres and stables often doing duty as schools.

While it is impossible to make even an approximate comparison of the purchasing power of money then and now, and it is true that food and household requisites were much cheaper then than they are at present, there can be no doubt that for more than a century the lot of the teacher was hard, and his whole environment sordid and depressing [Little meat was used. The pig and the hen were important contributors. Kailbrose, porridge, sowens, and oatcakes were the usual fare. The rural schoolmaster had often an acre or two of land and a cow, from the produce of which he and his family largely lived.]. But yet when the necessaries of life became dearer, as they gradually did, there was no additional income till 1803, when the minimum 16. 13s. 5d. and maximum 22. 4s. 5d. salaries were increased, the former being doubled and the latter trebled, and it was provided that there should be a revision every twenty-five years.

It is difficult to reconcile this state of matters with the position claimed for Scotland as in the van of educated nations in consequence of its possession of parish schools. And yet reconciliation of a kind is not impossible. The country was poor and distracted by civil and religious discord. The heritors were niggardly and, in the presence of events that affected them in a closer and more personal way, were indifferent about education. But the Church still exercised a powerful influence on the social life of the community, and encouraged teachers to persevere in their ill-requited labours. With the Church on their side, teachers believed that the grand comprehensiveness of Knox's educational aims would sooner or later be realised. Hence the undaunted spirit and inexhaustible patience with which they continued to discharge their duty under the most discouraging conditions, missing no opportunity of laying hold of boys of promise, and by carefully training them keeping up a connection between the school and the university.

In this way a splendidly conceived scheme, which was in danger of being made abortive through landlord greed and open disregard of legal enactment, was to some extent saved for the country.

There are few things in the history of education more admirable or more astonishing than the results that followed from the co-operation between minister and teacher at this time. The close connection between Church and school which had come down from Roman Catholic times was maintained. The teacher was elected by the heritors and minister of the parish, and, after swearing allegiance to the Sovereign, had to satisfy the Presbytery as to his ability and character. He was required to sign the Confession of Faith, and the minister was appointed superintendent of the school. The Presbytery had a right of visitation which they exercised up to the passing of the Act of 1872. Strengthened by this moral support, and in many cases by pecuniary help from the minister's scanty enough stipend, the teacher toiled on for a salary little better than that of a daylabourer, lived in a scandalously insufficient house, taught in a building or shed whose only characteristic of a school was often simply shelter from rain, and sometimes not even that. But the work went on with more or less success, and not seldom so well that boys of promise entered the university, carried off bursaries, and rose to positions of commercial or professional respectability and even eminence [In country districts there was often practically no other career for a" lad o' pairts " than the Church, and to be a schoolmaster formed a convenient steppingstone thereto. About go years ago nearly every minister in the Buchan district of Aberdeenshire had been a schoolmaster earlier in his career. At present (1908) there are only two or three, and they are oldish men.].

But not to the minister and teacher alone must be assigned the credit of keeping up the standard of education. They could not have succeeded, had they not been backed up by what may perhaps be fairly described as the traditional character of the Scot for the self-reliance, perseverance, and reasonable ambition, by which so many have earned success. Instances of promotion from the plough to the pulpit are found in the annals of almost every parish. Our history records many such cases as that of the boy who, after having made considerable acquaintance with Latin, was compelled by the poverty of his parents to leave school and take temporary work as an assistant to Lady Abercrombie's gardener. When his services were no longer required, the lady gave him a guinea and said, "Well! Jock, how are you going to spend your guinea?" "Oh, my Lady," he replied, "I've just made up my mind to tak a quarter o' Greek, for I hadna got beyond Latin when I left the school." This he did and won high position in the Church.

In the first quarter of the 19th century it was found from the enquiry instituted by Brougham in 1818 that some parishes in remote districts were much too large for efficient supervision by one man, and an Act was passed in 1824, under which some of these very large parishes were divided, and called parliamentary parishes [Geo. IV, c. 90.]. The tradition of a school in every parish was still kept--Steadily in view, and in 1838 " An act to facilitate the foundation and endowment of additional schools in Scotland" was passed. All that was demanded from the heritors was the erection of a school and schoolmaster's house. Government furnished the salary. In the following year the system of government inspection and grants in aid was instituted.

That there was great need for this act must be evident from what has been stated above. It was an attempt by those keenly interested in it to carry out proposals for "the virtuous education and godly upbringing of the youth of the realm." But while religion thus occupied a prominent place in the programme, they had also in view that those "apt for learning" should be , feeders of the universities. Other acts, merely supplementing or amending previous acts, were passed in 1845, 1854 and 1857. A much more important act was that of 1861 by which the salaries were increased, the minimum to 35, and the maximum to 70. The teacher was no longer required to sign the Confession of Faith and the Formula of the Church of Scotland, but to make a general declaration that he would not teach anything opposed to the authority of the Bible or Shorter Catechism. The examination of his qualification was transferred from the Presbytery to examiners appointed by the courts of the four universities within their respective areas. The power of dismissal for neglect of duty or inefficiency was, after consideration of H. M. Inspector's report, put into the hands of the heritors and minister of each parish ; and for immorality or cruelty into the hands of the sheriff of the county. It is evident from this that the tenure of office was ad vitam aut culpam.

Notwithstanding the amendments and extensions on the lines of the Act of 1696 introduced by the Act of 1803 and the others referred to, it cannot be claimed that the scheme of a school in every parish was carried out all over Scotland to a satisfactory extent even up to the middle of the 19th century. Meanwhile the area of state-aided schools widened. Many teachers who had not dreamt of becoming certificated were induced to aim at and obtain the coveted parchment [A teacher qualified to serve in a state-aided school received a parchment certificate, on which an entry as to his practical skill was annually recorded. Such entries have for some years been discontinued.]. The examination was found to be fairly within the reach of a person of average ability and education. There were as yet no lions in the way in the shape of standards, examination schedules, and blue pencils. It came to be known that the government examination of the school, if somewhat more exact and testing than the genial, and sometimes perfunctory examination by the Presbytery, imposed no restriction on freedom of action; that teachers were allowed within pretty wide limits to do what seemed right in their own eyes, and were only expected to give fair consideration to well-meant suggestions; that there was no iron rule as to subjects to be taught or methods to be followed, and that there was elbow-room and free play for both teacher and inspector.

Along with this freedom and as correctives of its possible abuse teachers had the government report to look to, the entry on the certificate, its revision every fifth year, and probable elevation to a higher grade, and greater money value. A fixed augmentation grant from 10 to 30, according to the grade of the certificate, was paid directly to the teacher, who was thus a servant of the state and not as now the servant of the school board or managers. The result of all this was that, in quite a natural way, reasonable effort in the discharge of duty was secured. These grants were conditionally payable on the voluntary contributions and the amount of fees being together equal to the grant, the principle being that government would help those who helped themselves. To poor outlying districts more favourable terms were given.

The process of bringing the parochial and other old teachers into the ranks of the certificated was for some time slow. Of 1049 parish schools only 124 were on the government list in 1854. This was to be expected. Many of the parish teachers were men of mature years, and had passed the age - if there be any such age - at which examinations are a delight. Many had had successful experience, and, being probably somewhat rusty in technical details, disliked imperilling their well-earned reputation on the chance of failure in an examination for which they entertained scant respect.

The path was smoothed by the department granting, without examination, certificates graded in height according as the applicants had been teachers for a certain number of years, were of a certain age, were graduates or members of council of a Scottish university, and even when these latter qualifications were absent. But evidence as to character and successful experience was demanded from all.

The rage for examination was scarcely past the incipient stage. The inspector had only in widely distant spots begun to trouble. In 1850 there was only one such officer. In 1860 there were eight. And other two spent a month or two inspecting Episcopal and Roman Catholic schools, inspection being at this time denominational. Parents were often present at these examinations in considerable numbers. This parental interest continued in country districts up to 1872, the ministers frequently joining hands with the inspector, and taking a share of the examination in religious knowledge. Thereafter it almost entirely ceased.

As the personal grants to teachers were either paid or refused in full, one can understand that refusals occurred only in cases of very marked inefficiency. In view of this and of the steady increase of schools on the government list, and also (as it was said) because of inefficiency in English schools, the Revised Code with its payment by results was, in 1862, devised as a remedy. Payment by results had a fine commercial ring, but the remedy was illusory, inherently mechanical and therefore bad ; and though only formally applied to Scotland, threw back ! our education for at least ten years. It did some good by 'increasing regularity of attendance and improving to some extent instruction in the three R's, but it did less than nothing for education. It is scarcely credible that, for five of the years of its miserable existence, the elementary schools of England had for sustenance nothing but the three R's in their barest forms. Intelligence, grammar, composition, geography, and history were not results worth paying for, and were consequently not taught. This was only to a certain, but quite appreciable, extent true of Scottish schools, which were exempted from the financial operation of the Revised Code. But notwithstanding this exemption its influence on the weaker class of teachers was pernicious.

Percentage of pass, as being the most quotable test of efficiency, was by many the principal, and by some the only aim. The clever child being sure to pass was allowed to mark time, while the dullard was mercilessly and injuriously drilled. The aim of many teachers was a low dead level for all, a thing impossible in school, and, even if possible in school-life, certain to end there. No amount of bolstering will permanently or profitably prop up either the schoolboy or the man who is inherently stupid or persistently lazy. There are in every school pupils who are fit only to be hewers of wood or drawers of water. Let these by all means have as much education as they can assimilate, in order to sweeten their lives and make them useful citizens. There are on the other hand few schools in which there are not some-no doubt a very small proportion-who show that they are fit for more than elementary education. Surely these ought to have at least their fair share of attention. It is even arguable that if the tradition which has given Scotland a distinguished place among educated nations is to be maintained, it is on political and patriotic grounds expedient, that they should have, where possible, more than an equal share, the best soil being thus carefully cultivated, while even the poorest is not allowed to run to waste.

It is beyond question that the Revised Code demoralised many teachers by putting them on vicious educational lines. During the ten years before 1872 much of the instruction was given with the limited range of a machine, and with a total absence of spontaneity and intellectual stimulus. Many teachers would neither have expressed nor felt regret though mathematics and classics were passed over, who formerly would have invited examination of these higher branches with something akin to ostentatious but healthy pride. But they were not without excuse. They yielded to a temptation by no means slight. It took a strong man to refuse to worship the percentage divinity when the majority of school managers made a high percentage the channel of promotion. For a considerable time even after the Act of 1872 many school boards also treated percentage of pass as the true measure of efficiency. A comparison of this state of matters with the widening of the educational horizon which followed the establishment of a separate code for Scotland in 1893, and which continued with gradual improvements for the following thirteen years, shows history repeating itself by a steady return towards the aim of the old parish schools, with the important difference that, combined with the effort to maintain a high standard for those fit to profit by it, there is security that pupils of duller mood are not sent empty away-one of the failings chargeable against a good many of the old parish schools.

In the Reminiscences of Dr Findlater, for some time editor of Chambers' Encyclopaedia, we have a description of the parish school in Aberdeenshire in which he was taught, in the first quarter of the 19th century. The contrast between the past and present school-house is exceedingly striking. "The dimensions were 34 by 14, and the height of the side walls 6 feet. A portion of the room was partitioned off, along each side stood a long flat table or desk with a form attached to each side, so that the scholars sat facing each other. A considerable space was thus left vacant in the middle of the floor, and there stood the master's chair without any desk. The fire burned on an open hearth : there was no flue, the smoke issuing by the usual lum (chimney). A part of the school-room space was taken up with a pile of peats. This store was kept up by each scholar bringing a peat every morning under his arm....The floor was of earth, and usually well worn into holes. The duty of removing the ashes, kindling the fire, and sweeping the floor devolved on a censor appointed weekly. The sweeping was mostly confined to the middle of the floor. The dust under the desks was rarely disturbed, and generally lay about an inch deep.... I do not think that I ever heard Mr Craik (the schoolmaster) ask the meaning of a word or sentence, or offer to explain the one or the other....In the curriculum of the Aberdour School neither grammar, history nor geography formed a part."

A school appliance probably known only in Aberdeenshire is perhaps worthy of mention, viz. the "queelin (cooling) stane." This was a smooth flat stone upon which offenders were made to sit after their unprotected and overheated cuticle had been subjected to the discipline of the birch or tawse. Whether the cooling stone was meant as an additional punishment, or as a grateful alleviation of suffering must be left to conjecture.

On one occasion an obstreperous boy, who however seemed to have had the saving sense of humour, was, after the arrangement of his garments necessary to the punishment being effectively administered, placed on the back of the school porter who happened to wear a yellow wig. The boy seeing no other protection seized the wig, and clapped it upon the part of his body that was specially to suffer. Cooling stones are no longer in use, but they existed in some Aberdeen schools till the 19th century. (The Past and Present of Aberdeenshire, by Rev. Dr Paul, 1881, pp. 81-84.)

School-houses, teaching and discipline of this kind though more rare were not unknown in the middle of the 19th century. Better days however were not far off. The offer of government grants and the Act of 1861, which further increased the emoluments, and made Presbyterians of any denomination eligible for the office of parish schoolmaster, brought into the profession men of higher education and more thorough training. This again was followed by the Act of 1872 and the introduction of a separate code for Scotland, with the result that the general intellectual condition of the average school soon compared most favourably with what were somewhat thoughtlessly called the `good old times.'

In respect of equipment, organisation and classification the improvement was very striking. The rooms were, except in outlying districts, fairly suitable in size and well ventilated, the discipline cheerful, and the spirit of work satisfactory.


This is perhaps as suitable a place as any other for referring to a fund which had its origin early in the 19th century. Though it is still in existence, the purposes which it was intended to serve bulk much more largely in the third than in the fourth period of our subject.

In 1801 a little company of schoolmasters met in a Fifeshire village and resolved to establish a fund for the "relief of widows and children of Burgh and Parochial Schoolmasters in Scotland." In the following year the fund was constituted by Act of Parliament, and all Burgh and Parochial Schoolmasters appointed thereafter were compelled to contribute to it sums varying from one to five guineas annually, according to the value of the annuities they wished to purchase. Thirty-one years later schoolmasters of quoad sacra parishes became eligible for membership, provided they received what was regarded as adequate salaries from the Heritors or Town Councils. Schoolmasters in other - such as Free Church - schools were not admitted as contributors.

The fund was wisely and economically administered. At the passing of the Act of 1872 which made contributions to it by future teachers non-obligatory, and thereby struck its deathblow, there were 1332 contributors; the annual income was nearly 8000 ; the annuities paid amounted to 5300, and the capital to over 117,000. In its centenary year (1901) the number of contributors had fallen to 249, and the capital to 90,000. Two years later the capital had been reduced to 83,000 and provision was then made, by substantially increasing the annuities, for its further reduction. It is quite evident that in a few years steps must be taken to wind up the fund, due care being taken to guarantee the annuities of all beneficiaries. It is greatly to be regretted that a fund so ably managed, and so beneficent in its operations was not extended in 1872 to include at least all the male teachers of Scotland. The annuities purchased by its members were not large, but they were sufficient to tide over a period of strain and stress in many a stricken household.

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