Scottish school exams

'Scottish exams 1888-1963' video transcript

Interview with Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Education Policy, University of Edinburgh

We all have to sit exams of one kind of other in our lives. Hi, I'm Fiona Laing, curator of official publications. This historical collection of Scottish school exam papers is freely available for you to access on this website.

It covers the years from 1888 to 1963. They're interesting for all sorts of reasons be it for general interest, looking back at a particular paper or subjects. From a historical perspective, as they reflect how education has developed in Scotland over these years or perhaps for inspiration for more creative works of writing, art, music or dance.

I hope that you'll enjoy exploring this material at your leisure. Next, Professor Paterson of Edinburgh University will give an overview of the educational context for these papers.

Q: Professor Paterson, in your experience, what has been the biggest change you've seen with regards to school examinations?

PP: The biggest change is that far more people are taking exams than would have done back at the beginning, back in 1888 when it was a tiny fraction of all school pupils that would take exams. That proportion has gradually grown over time. And one of the reasons that has happened is that exams have been a way of providing opportunities. We sometimes complain about exams these days and obviously most students complain about exams when they're taking them but actually exams historically have been a way in which people can demonstrate their true abilities. It's a way, for example in which girls had their true merits recognised rather than being judged as incapable of doing academic things. Once they started being given access to exams girls and young women could demonstrate they were just as capable as boys [as] doing that kind of thing.

Another important social group in that respect in Scotland is Catholics. Catholics were previously marginalised from the school system. Once their secondary schools were built up between the wars mainly, they got access to the exams and as a result they got the same kinds of opportunities as everyone else.

Q: And in terms of subjects covered, what would you say has been the biggest shift, if any?

PP: Well in some respects there's not been a shift but the titles, the names have changed. For example, it used to be the case that what we now call history and geography and modern studies, the study of politics, was all part of the English exam.

If you look at an English higher paper for example, in the 1920s you would be astonished to find lots of stuff about history and about geography and about current politics. Now all that has separated off as the social sciences have grown especially since the 1950s but also as English in a sense has become more specialised focusing much more on literary qualities and less on the social and historical context.

Q: How is content about Scotland represented in the exams?

PP: There's a lot more about Scotland than most people would expect. There's a sort of assumption that in the past it was almost impossible to study Scottish material especially modern Scottish material in a Scottish school until very recently but in fact that's not the case. If you look even before the First World War and then between the two World Wars you find in the English paper for example, a lot about Scottish writers - Burns, Walter Scott, Thomas Carlysle. Modern Scottish writers as well by the time we get to the 1930s and also a lot about Scottish history and geography. Not just before the union with England but also how Scotland responded to industrialisation and also how the religious character of Scotland and England compared in the 18th and 19th centuries. So yes you could study a lot of Scottish topics through these exam syllabuses.