Scottish School Reforms of 1870s.

The report of the Royal Commission on Education in Scotland of 1867 presents a vivid and detailed picture of the educational conditions of the whole country at that time. One can see from this that Scotland had been in possession of a National system of Education for nearly two hundred years. The Education Act of 1872 gave effect to the recommendations of the Commission, and the Act improved primary education. Its object was to provide education for "the whole people of Scotland" and not merely for the labouring classes as was implied in the English measure.

In Scotland there were basically two kinds of schools. The parish schools, which originally were purely elementary, were encouraged to provide at least the elements of secondary education. These schools played this role so well, that the Argyle Commission in its report of 1868 reported that over fifty per cent of the students attending the four Scottish universities came direct from parish schools.

The burgh or grammar schools, which were the true secondary schools, owing to the competition of the parish schools, were compelled to open their doors to primary pupils who were prepared to pay increased fees for the privilege. It is in this way that both types of schools became universal education providers, and gave to Scotland an education system far removed from the highly specialised character of continental schools. The general effect of this policy was to depress secondary education in the higher class reaches, but greatly to raise the level for the whole country. Through it, indeed, Scotland possessed for more than two hundred years the most democratic education system in the world, and to a considerable extent in consequence of this it has enjoyed an influence and importance in the world altogether out of proportion to its size and population.

Since 1872 repeated efforts were made to remedy the more glaring defects in the original Act, some of them successful. As an example, The Education Act of 1878 empowered the Education Department to conduct inspection of all higher class schools, but state inspection was not carried out because of financial difficulties until after the reorganisation of the Scottish Education Department in 1885. The Scottish Education Department was set up in 1839, but it only became effective from 1872 when a separate committee of the privy council was set up to administer the Scottish Education Department.

In 1882 The Educational Endowments (Scotland) Act was passed, under which such inspection was extended to all endowed schools and a commission consisting of seven commissioners was established, with Lord Balfour of Burleigh being chairman. Alexander Gibson, was appointed to be the secretary to the commissioners. The commissioners were provided full powers necessary for their job.

Chrystal was not a commissioner, but was a friend of the secretary of the commission Alexander Gibson. Many questions the commission considered were frequently discussed by Gibson and Chrystal, sometime their friend Professor Robertson Smith, the famous theologist who often in Edinburgh, being part of the discussions. Gibson always found their opinions helpful and worthy of the consideration of his commission. These discussions gave Chrystal a renewed interest in educational reform. In 1877 Chrystal had remarked with concern that secondary education had not kept pace with primary education, but had, on the whole taken a step backwards. He said that secondary schools were dying while even those with money were far from efficient. The universities, Chrystal said, were "wholesomely prosperous", their standard, like that of secondary schools was:-
... below the level of the cultured nations of Europe.
His thoughts soon led him to become more and more an advocate of extending the policy of state aid to secondary schools. With the advent of an independent Education Department, Scottish Education once more resumed its onward course. As a result of this administrative change Chrystal, along with some other Scottish professors, took part in the inspection of secondary schools over a period of several years. The inspectors appointed by the Education Department in 1886 to investigate the conditions in the higher class schools presented a somewhat depressing report: the staff were found to be inadequate and underpaid, the curricula far behind the times, and the methods antiquated and ineffective.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson based on part of Chapter 3 of a University of St Andrews doctoral dissertation by Mohammad Yousuf submitted January 1990.