Scottish school exams

Historical context

Learn about the development of Scottish education between 1864 and 1963

Photograph used with permission of Glasgow City Archives

Scottish exams 1888-1963

Professor Lindsay Paterson of the University of Edinburgh answers questions from Fiona Laing, Official Publications Curator at the National Library of Scotland.

Video transcript

This 100-year timeline highlights notable dates in the development of education and school examinations in Scotland.

Expand entire timeline

Exam papers timeline

1864-67 Argyll Commission investigates condition of Scottish education

Royal Commission, under chairmanship of the Duke of Argyll, investigates the condition of Scottish education. 1st report P.P. 1865 XVII; 2nd report P.P. 1867 XXV; 3rd report P.P. 1867-68 XXIX.

1872 Education (Scotland) Act 1872 lays the basis for the modern education system; Scotch Education Department established

Schooling now compulsory for 5-13 year olds. Although education is compulsory it is not free. Secondary education is available only in a few urban schools.

1878 Education (Scotland) Act 1878, Labour Certificate

Provision for a systematic and uniform inspection of Higher class public schools (that is, schools managed by local authorities) by the Education Department, but other priorities prevented its implementation.

Labour Certificate ran from 1878-1901 and permitted children aged 10-13 to leave school after passing certain tests set by His Majesty's Inspectors of Schools (HMI).

1883 School leaving age raised to 14
1885 First Permanent Secretary of the Scotch Education Department - Henry Craik
1886 Secondary School Inspections by HM Inspectors introduced
1888 Leaving Certificate introduced

1st Leaving Certificate has 972 entrants from 29 schools. Examinations in 6 subjects - English (which includes history and geography) Latin, Greek, French, German and mathematics (including arithmetic)

Three grades -

Honours grade corresponding to that required for entrance to the Indian Civil Service. (discontinued in 1908 when group certificates were introduced).

Higher grade corresponding to the standard maintained in the examinations preparatory to the degree courses at the Scottish universities - satisfactory completion of at least 3 years post-primary education.

Lower grade corresponding to the standard of the Medical Faculty Preliminary Examinations. Lower Certificate given at age 14 on completion of two years post-primary. The need for such a certificate disappeared when in 1939 the leaving age was raised to 15.

1889 & 1890 Education (Scotland) Acts 1889 & 1890

These Acts make funds available that allowed the Board of Education to abolished fees. Although it was not until the 1960s that secondary education was free in all public-sector schools, the expansion of secondary education at the beginning of the new century made free secondary education available to all who were judged to be qualified to benefit from it.

1891 Merit Certificate introduced

Open to all pupils 13 or over on satisfactory completion of the elementary course in the Three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic), 2 class subjects - English, history, geography, needlework and elementary science and one specific subject.

1892 Secondary Education Committee established

These corresponded to county councils and large cities.

1893 Universities accept women onto courses.
1899 Science appeared in the Leaving Certificate mainly on bases of oral and practical testing
1900 Adoption of an experimental Group Certificate

A grouping requirement meant that a student would receive a certificate only if they passed a specified range of subjects - e.g. English, mathematics, a language and a science. The rules varied over time, but typically 2 of these passes had to be at Higher level and the other 2 at Higher or Lower level.

1901 Education (Scotland) Act 1901 raises the age of compulsory attendance to 14

Qualifying examination at age 12 is replaced by the Merit Certificate as the hurdle which pupils had to cross to enter post-primary courses.

1902 Leaving Certificates stop being issued for passes in single subjects; Intermediate Certificate introduced

Intermediate Certificate awarded for 1 Higher + 3 Lowers - 2-year course, minimum age 15. Development of Higher Grade schools as a means of radically extending secondary education: the start of the First World War, around 200 of these schools had been set up, supplementing the approximately 50 older Higher class schools and independent schools. Despite the name, the Higher Grade schools at first offered only the Intermediate Certificate

1904 John Struthers succeeds Craik as Secretary of the Scotch Education Department

Sir John Struthers, Secretary of the Scotch Education Department from 1904-1918, then Scottish Education Department from 1918-1921

1906 Specialised certificates introduced in technical and commercial subjects
1908 Education (Scotland) Act changes the school structure, consolidates funding and introduces medical supervision

Medical supervision is now compulsory. School Boards to serve schools meals where they think fit. Introduction of financial measures intended to consolidate the provision for secondary education. Bringing together of all miscellaneous grants within one central fund called the Education (Scotland) Fund - amounting to around £500,000.

School structure -

Primary school catering for pupils up to the age of 14.

Intermediate - 3-year courses in languages, mathematics and science and other post-primary subjects. Intermediate curriculum was an entity in itself.

Secondary schools - courses of at least 5 years.

1918 Education (Scotland) Act abolishes School Boards and name of Department changed from 'Scotch' to 'Scottish'

947 School Boards abolished and replaced by an ad hoc Education Authority elected every 3 years, set up in 35 counties and 5 burghs. For the first time provision is made for secondary education for all pupils, by enabling most of the 200 Higher Grade schools to be recognised as providing full 5-year courses. Provided for the transfer of all remaining religious schools to Education Authority management: since most schools of the Presbyterian churches had transferred to the School Boards after 1872, this provision mainly affected Roman Catholic and Episcopal schools.

1920 Advisory Council on Education in Scotland established

Proposing 3 types of secondary school -

Primary for pupils aged 5-12.

Intermediate for those aged 12-15.

Secondary for ages 15-18.

Rejected by Scottish Education Department (SED) as a result of post-war austerity and the official belief that only a minority of pupils could benefit from secondary education. Remained a focus of campaigning throughout the 1920s.

1922 Sir George MacDonald appointed Secretary of the SED

Scottish Education Department (SED) continues to operate largely from the office in 14 Queen Street, Edinburgh, although the official address of the Department remains in Whitehall. This unofficial move meant that Scottish education was now administered much more by people living within the country who could be in regular contact with schools and with the new Education Authorities.

1925 Day School Certificates begin; Intermediate and Merit Certificates dropped

3-year Higher course; 2-year Lower course. Group Certificates now 2 Highers + 2 Lowers, remaining essentially unchanged until 1950.

1928 Scottish Council for Research in Education established by the Scottish Teachers Union as the centre for educational research in Scotland

Scottish Council for Research in Education 1928-2003: a Short History (PDF)

1936 Education (Scotland) Act 1936 decrees the raising of the school leaving age to 15

Due for implementation on 1 September 1939 but delayed due to World War II

1939 Scottish Office officially moves to Edinburgh

Around 770,000 children attending school in Scotland.

Scottish Office officially moves to (Old) St Andrew's House in Edinburgh. Within the new structure, the SED was under (Sir) James W Peck.

1940 Day Certificates abolished; history separated from English to become a subject in its own right

Day Certificates abolished entirely - SED Circular 113 (proposed Junior Leaving Certificate not introduced because of war).

1945 Education (Scotland) Act 1945

The Act states that all forms of education, within Education Authority schools, should be free unless the authority judged that charging fees would not restrict the number of free places available.

Transfer of pupils from primary to secondary school now compulsory at about the age of 12. School leaving age should be raised to 15 on 1 April 1947 and to 16 as soon practicable (although this did not come about until 1972).

Practical subjects come into prominence.

1947 Leaving age raised to 15; Advisory Council on Education in Scotland report on Secondary Education

The Advisory Council Report on Secondary Education (Cmd 7005) was, for a time, the most famous official report on Scottish education of the 20th century, anticipating by 2-3 decades the move to comprehensive secondary schools and proposing the end of external examination as interfering with true education (a point that remains controversial to this day). The Council was chaired by William Hamilton Fyfe, Principal of the University of Aberdeen.

1950 Group Certificates were discontinued and certificates awarded on single subjects
1958 Government white paper 'Education in Scotland - the next steps' published; first involvement of teachers as exam markers - previously university professors
1961 'O' grade introduced - which become the basic entry qualifications for university study

Highers continued essentially unchanged (as they had done since 1888).

1962 Education (Scotland) Act 1962

Lower grade disappears and Ordinary grade was established as a certificate to be taken in 4th year of the secondary course.

1963 Scottish Certificate of Education established monitored by the Scottish Certificate of Education Examination Board