By an Act of the Scottish Privy Council, on the 10th of December, 1616, ordinance was published for the establishment of parish schools in Scotland.
Whatever might be said about the quality of education in general throughout Great Britain in the 21st Century, it has always been considered very important in Scotland. In fact, Scots still have their own educational system, distinct, perhaps superior, from that of the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom. There have been schools in Scotland from as far back as early medieval times and very likely earlier. Aberdeen’s earliest school, for example, dates from 1124. Although there is no surviving evidence of any schools before the 12th Century, it's also true that early Christian monasteries functioned as centres of learning. Later, until the Reformation took hold, it was the Roman Catholic Church that organised schooling.
Apart from Aberdeen, the first schools included the High School of Glasgow, dating also from 1124, and the High School of Dundee, established in 1239. Such schools were grammar schools and, largely speaking, only available to boys, and the sons of the wealthy elite at that. From the 15th Century, education advanced exponentially in Scotland with the founding of several universities: St Andrews in 1413; Glasgow in 1450; and Aberdeen in 1495. The year after Aberdeen's university was established, James IV brought in Scotland's first Education Act. That act decreed that the eldest sons of barons and freeholders of substance should attend grammar schools to study Latin, arts and law, in order to ensure that all local government in James' kingdom lay in knowledgeable hands. The resulting increase in literacy no doubt contributed to the flowering of Scottish culture, under the influence of the European Renaissance, during the reign of the enlightened one – James IV.
Come the Reformation and Scotland saw a change in the delivery of formal education. John Knox gets a lot of the credit and no doubt he felt he deserved it. In 1560, Knox's 'First Book of Discipline' outlined a national system for providing a “virtuous education and godly upbringing of the youth of this Realm”. The mechanism was the establishment of parish primary schools, burgh grammar schools, high schools, and new universities; Edinburgh, which was established in 1582 and Marischal College, Aberdeen, in 1593.
The Kirk wanted to ensure that everyone could read the Bible, but its heart was in the right place when it added, “For the poor, if need be, education may be given free.” The result was the setting up of schools in various towns and parishes, but it was no means widespread. Subjects taught were as proposed by Knox and his cronies, namely the Catechism, grammar, classical literature, French, and Latin “if the town be of any reputation.” In the high schools, such as were provided, was taught in addition “the Arts, at least Logic and Rhetoric.”
Fifty-six years after Knox's book and one hundred and twenty years after James IV's act, James VI's Privy Council passed the School Establishment Act of 1616, which mandated that a school be established in every parish. According to the section on the 'Acts of the Parliament and of the Privy Council of Scotland, relative to the establishing and maintaining of Schools' published in 1840, in the 'Miscellany of the Maitland Club', “Thairfoir the Kingis Majestie with advise of the Lordis of his secreit Counsall hes thocht it necessar and expedient that in everie parroche of this Kingdome whair convenient meanes may be had for interteyning a scoole That a scoole salbe establisheit and a fitt persone appointit to teach the same upoun the expensis of the parrochinneris.”
The act, inspired by the preamble to Knox's book, set out the responsibilities of the local heritors (the landed proprietors of the parish) to provide and fund a schoolhouse, with a Dominie (schoolmaster) on a small, fixed salary. Also, as per the system outlined by Knox, the act declared that “ all his Majesties subjectis especailly the youth be exercised and trayned up in civilitie and godlines knawledge and leirning.” Unable to escape the clutches of the Kirk, the act further declared that “the trew religion be advanceit and establisheit in all the places of this kingdome,” however, the Episcopalian Bishops were to supervise the schools, rather than Ministers as the Presbyterians would have wished. There was always a rift between the Kirk and the Monarch in Scotland.
Not satisfied with its involvement in education and religion, the 1616 Privy Council act commanded a social change. Religion notwithstanding, the objectionable objective of the act was the obliteration of Gaelic, which James VI and I spoke himself by the way; one of his several and varied talents. The promoting of universally available education was praiseworthy, but the intended elimination of Gaelic and its attendant assault on highland culture was a dastardly deed. The Maitland Club's 'Miscellany' records the crime as follows: “That the vulgar Inglish toung be universallie plantit and the Irische language which is one of the cheif and principall causis of the continewance of barbaritie and incivilitie amangis the inhabitantis of the Ilis and heylandis may be abolisheit and removit.” This Privy Council act was neither the first nor the last attempt to sort out the descendants of the Picts, and the Gaels.
It took three more acts of Parliament, in 1633, 1646 and 1696, before a solid foundation was established and schools became sufficiently widespread to be classed as nationwide. At first, success proved elusive, because of Scotland’s relative poverty and the prevailing political and religious circumstances. The 1633 act was introduced to levy a tax on local landowners; to ensure that money was available. The 1696 Scottish Parliament act for 'Setting Schools’ ensured that every parish not already equipped with a school was required to establish a schoolhouse and to provide for a Dominie. By the end of the 18th Century, most parishes in Scotland had at least one school. No accident then, that from the 18th Century onwards, Scotland had one of the highest standards of literacy of any nation in Europe.