The setting up of the Scottish Leaving Certificate.

The outstanding feature in the history of secondary education during the twenty years immediately succeeding the passing of the Education Act of 1872 was the institution of the Leaving Certificate Examination, by which secondary education in the higher class public schools, the higher class schools, and the state aided schools, aimed at a common examination. This also provided a link to the work in the universities, and was one of the most important factors in the advance of the methods and results in secondary schools. At the beginning the system differed fundamentally from the German conception of leaving certificates. Certificates were awarded on the result of a purely external examination, although an attempt was made, but not very successfully, to keep in touch with school programmes by means of visits of inspection. These certificates were granted, not for success in specified groups of subjects, nor for the satisfactory completion of an approved school course, but for passes in the separate subjects of instruction. In this way pupils could boast of being in possession of four, five, and six Leaving Certificates. All this was latter changed, and a single certificate marked the successful close of the Intermediate and Post-Intermediate stage respectively.

Henry Craik, who became permanent secretary of the Scottish Education Department in 1885, was determined to improve the standard of education in Scotland. To obtain an overview of Scottish education, he appointed a committee of inquiry in 1886 to examine the state of education in Scotland. Its report showed a serious lack of uniformity between schools in various parts of the country. In 1886 he announced in a circular his Department's decision to conduct an inspection of all higher class schools. This circular made the first official reference to a Leaving Certificate, saying [1]:-
In connection with the inspection of schools, the suggestion was made that their Lordships should issue a certificate, based on the results of the highest classes in these schools, which would serve as a measure of the attainment fairly to be expected in the case of pupils completing a course of secondary education.
Before such a certificate was instituted, it was decided to consult with those who had experience in examining higher class schools, with a view to determining whether a national examination of the type was possible. One man with such experience was Chrystal.

Craik in his 1886-87 report remarks [2]:-
... we have given special consideration to the means by which this inspection might give satisfactory evidence as top the state of the schools, and might as the same time, without unduly limiting the independence of local management, raise the standards of secondary education throughout the country. With this end we have carefully considered the extent to which a leaving examination might be established in connection with the inspection, and how it might best be arranged. We have invited the opinions on this subject of those who have taken part in the inspection, as well as others.
Chrystal, after being asked by the Scottish Education Department, conducted an experiment to test the possibility of setting up a General Leaving Examination for secondary schools in Scotland. He examined pupils in the higher classes of twelve secondary schools. The experiment was a difficult one, involving the setting and marking of a mathematics paper, to a common standard. In all Chrystal, with the help of his assistant, marked 1650 examination papers.

In order to make clear the reasons for the course which Chrystal ultimately followed, it is necessary to understand his ideas about the advantages of a leaving certificate examination. The most important result of a leaving examination, according to Chrystal, is to set a minimum standard for the work of the secondary schools, and to mark, to some extent, the boundary between their level and that of the universities. This standard must be so high enough to encourage progress in the best equipped schools, and yet not so high as to damage education in the many schools in Scotland that were inadequately equipped to meet the requirements.

To determine this standard, Chrystal took into account the general agreement in Scotland that pupils from the final class of a good secondary school should be academically equipped to enter university. This immediately determined that the minimum standard of proficiency should be equivalent to that of the university entrance examination for the three years' Arts course. From his assessment of the written papers, however, Chrystal concluded that only a small percentage were capable of attaining that standard, though a high percentage of the 'failures' had, in fact, reached a standard of proficiency equivalent to that demanded by the General Medical Council and other professional bodies in their entrance examinations. Thus he recommended that if a national leaving examination were instituted, two grades of certificate should be issued, a higher grade equivalent to the University Entrance Examination, and a lower grade equivalent to the entrance examination of the Medical Council and other professional bodies. Chrystal wrote in his report:-
... so far as mathematics is concerned, the institution of a leaving examination will be attended with no great difficulty, and probably with much advantage to our secondary schools.

The chief advantage of a leaving examination would be that:-

... it would lighten considerably an unnecessary burden which at present oppresses the secondary schools ...
which was the burdon of preparing different groups of students in a single class for various professional entrance examinations, each of which has a standard of its own.

Encouraged by the report, the Scottish Education Department decided to investigate the feasibility of such a national examination in subjects other than mathematics. Inspectors, in addition to their normal duties, were requested to submit a report on the proposed examination. The report indicated that there was no real obstacle preventing the institution of a common examination in the other main academic subjects, English and Languages. Further impetus to the creation of a Leaving Certificate came from the committee of inquiry, set up by the Department in 1886 under the chairmanship of C S Parker, which issued three reports during the period 1887-88. In the third report, concerned with a comprehensive study of secondary education, reference was made to the creation of a national certificate examination as a means of improving the standard of secondary education in Scotland.

Chrystal's feasibility report of instituting a general leaving examination in mathematics, the report of higher class schools' examiner's as to its extension to other subjects, and the evidence laid before Parker's inquiry committee, all convinced Craik that the institution of a Leaving Certificate Examination was both desirable and practicable. Consequently the Scottish Education Department announced its decision to introduce such a Leaving Certificate Examination in 1888.

It was a bold decision on part of Henry Craik but it proved to be a most successful one. The main reason of its success was that Craik never tried to impose the decisions of the Department, rather he sought the opinions of the schools at each step. For example the Department asked for the opinion of school authorities on the following matters:
  1. The subjects which should be included in such an examination.

  2. The standard which should be aimed at in each subject.

  3. The classes in the school to which such an examination should be open and the probable number of candidates.

  4. The most convenient time for the examination.

  5. Attendance requirement to be fulfilled by the candidates.

The circular ended with these sentences:-
Other points may occur on which those whom you represent may desire to offer remarks, and to any such remarks my Lords will give most careful consideration. The views which are laid before them will be carefully compared and weighed.
The replies from schools indicated a demand for certificates covering more than the purely classical courses, and there was enthusiasm for a science certificate with special emphasis on mathematics. There was, however, a difference of opinion as to the type of certificate - some school authorities suggested that the certificates be issued for passes in individual subjects, while others wanted a group certificate, covering the three university subjects, Latin, Greek and Mathematics. There was general agreement that, if the examination was to incorporate all the higher class schools in Scotland, two grades of certificates were necessary - one for pupils going forward to universities, another for pupils going forward to a career in banking, insurance and commerce. This confirmed the opinion expressed by Chrystal two years before in his own report, and Craik was convinced by the argument.

Although the schools welcomed the new examination, it was clear that its acceptance was conditional on its being recognised as equivalent to the university entrance examination and those of other professional bodies. The four Scottish universities and other professional bodies were contacted by the Education Department and asked that they recognise the Leaving Certificate Examination. Professional bodies indicated a ready acceptance of the examination as an equivalent to their own entrance examinations. The acceptance of the universities, however, was not so easily won.

As a first move in this direction, Craik invited the universities to send representatives to a conference, held on 25th February 1888 in Edinburgh, at which representatives of the Scottish Education Department were to discuss with the rectors of the secondary schools the differences of opinion which had been revealed by the replies to the circular. This was felt to be necessary before the arrangements for the first examination were finalised. The universities, however, decided that the best way not be be committed to the decisions of this conference was not to send their official representatives. Chrystal attended the conference, but as a private individual and not a representative of Edinburgh University.

There is no official record of the conference, but Craik kept brief minutes which show that the main question discussed was whether the certificate be issued should be on a group or subject basis. Chrystal advised that a subject based certificate would best suit the needs of Scottish education at that time. It was generally agreed in principle, however, that Leaving Certificates should be issued for groups of subjects, but that, as a matter of practical expediency, it would be necessary to begin with certificates in single subjects and let the group certificate develop over time. The final preparations for the examination went smoothly and the first Leaving Certificate Examination was sat on Monday 18 June 1888. The struggle to gain university recognition of the examination continued, and at last in 1889 Craik was successful in achieving this.

The evolution of the Leaving Certificate Examination itself was discussed by Chrystal in his promoter's address of 1908 in these words:-
A small sum available for the purposes of secondary school inspection in Scotland had been wrung from the Treasury, and it occurred to me that it might be utilised to institute a leaving certificate examination. I was examining twelve schools for the Department in the year 1886, and it was proposed that I should demonstrate how such an examination, at least in a single subject, could be carried out. When I came to write my report the idea of a general leaving certificate examination had developed in my mind, and I sketched a complete scheme, in most of its essentials the same as now exists. To my great surprise, and no small gratification, the proposal was immediately taken up by the Scottish Education Department. The labour of carrying out the scheme in detail was taken up by Sir Henry Craik, then beginning his successful administration of the new Department. In an account of the subject that recently appeared in Scotsman, it has been very justly said that the introduction of the leaving certificate examination was perhaps the most important event of Sir Henry Craik's tenure of office, and he certainly deserves the highest credit for the tact and energy with which he carried out what proved under his guidance to be a great educational reform.
As was to be expected, the Leaving Certificate Examination underwent many changes in details over the next few years. Strong representations were made in favour of the issue of leaving certificates, not in single subjects, but in groups of subjects. Despite some apparent practical difficulties in instituting the group certificate, the demand for it increased, and eventually the Department indicated that as a preliminary experiment it intended to issue group certificates in addition to those issued in single subjects. These would be issued to those candidates who had received higher level instruction for not less than four years in a recognised school, and who had obtained, during that period, subject certificates at higher grade in at least four subjects, of which one had to be English, one an ancient or modern foreign language, and one mathematics or, in the case of girls, higher arithmetic. Two subject certificates of lower grade were accepted in place of the fourth certificate at higher grade, and a leaving certificate in science could replace the certificate at higher grade in the ancient or modern foreign language.

Implemented in 1900, the experiment proved to be only moderately successful. The Department, deciding that a group certificate would be advantageous to the development of secondary education, proposed that from 1902 the Leaving Certificate would be issued on a group basis only. This new decision established two classes of certificate. One, the Leaving Certificate proper, was intended to mark the completion of a full course of secondary education. The other, an Intermediate Certificate, intended to meet the needs of those schools which were unable, for one cause or another, to retain their pupils long enough to complete a full course of secondary education. The minimum age for the former certificate was seventeen, and that for the latter fifteen. Both were to be awarded for proficiency over a group of subjects. There was considerable freedom of choice, every candidate being required to have specific training in either a language or science. The holder of a Leaving Certificate was prepared for university study, whereas the Intermediate Certificate implied fitness to start literary, commercial or technical study.

In 1906 the Scottish Education Department announced that the Intermediate Certificate was to be a necessary prerequisite for entry to a course leading to the full Leaving Certificate. Then, in 1908, the Department introduced the Curricular Intermediate Certificate which played an important role in the evolution of the leaving certificate examination, for it helped to destroy the concept that subjects were independent of each other, an idea which had pervaded secondary education throughout the nineteenth century. It put into practice the view that a Leaving Certificate should reflect proficiency over a wide curriculum designed to promote educational growth.

In retrospect, the Leaving Certificate Examination played a vital role in the development of secondary education in Scotland during the period 1888 to 1908. It also did much to raise the standard of education in secondary schools - in fact by 1908 Scottish secondary schools were covering work which a quarter of a century previously had been studied in the Arts classes of the universities. The Leaving Certificate instituted in 1888 was the supreme award in Scottish secondary education until its replacement by the Scottish Certificate of Education in 1962.

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.
  1. H Craik, Education (Scotland) Report 1885-86.

  2. H Craik, Education (Scotland) Report 1886-87.

  3. G Chrystal, Promoter's Address to Arts Graduates of Edinburgh University (1908).