National Records of Scotland

Preserving the past, Recording the present, Informing the future

Education Records

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Education Records

We hold a variety of records relating to education which can be consulted in the Historical Search Room.  This guide covers:


Education has always been considered very important by Scots: indeed, Scotland's first education act was passed as far back as 1496, when James IV ordered that the eldest sons of barons and free-holders should study Latin, arts and law, in order to ensure that local government lay in knowledgeable hands.

Two hundred years later a further education act ordered that a school be established in every parish, to be provided by the local heritors (landowners). Such schools were established slowly, but by the end of the 18th century most parishes in Scotland had at least one school.  In addition some private schools were set up in the 18th and 19th centuries.  While some provided education for the sons and daughters of gentlefolk, others offered little more than basic education for a few pennies a term.

A useful preliminary to research is to consult the entries for the relevant area in the Old and New Statistical Accounts of Scotland (1790s and 1840s respectively). These detailed descriptions of the economic and social conditions in each of the Scottish parishes, written by the local Church of Scotland minister, often include references to contemporary educational provision.

Scottish Education Department

The Education (Scotland) Act 1872 set up a system of education for the whole of Scotland but left its overall administration to the Scotch (later Scottish) Education Department (SED) in London.  Local pressure led eventually to the appointment in 1885 of a Secretary of State for Scotland, but the Education Department remained in London almost in its entirety until the 1920s, and it was not until 1939 that its headquarters moved north.  We hold the surviving records of the SED, which include file series on all aspects of Scottish education.

Records of Schools and School Teachers

You will find information on individual schools and sometimes on individual teachers but rarely on pupils in our records.  For centuries education in Scotland was provided by burgh or parish schools which were attended by boys of all social classes. The surviving records of burgh schools are normally held with other burgh records (our reference B) by the local archive office or in the national archive collections.  It is unusual, however, for specific education records to survive: most references to burgh schools and schoolmasters especially the appointment of Burgh Schoolmasters lie within the general series of council minutes, which are often un-indexed, and it may take some searching to identify relevant references. The Scottish Burgh Record Society has published extracts from the records of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Peebles, Stirling, Lanark and Paisley and these are fully indexed.

Heritors were the landed proprietors of the parish, and were formerly liable for the payment of public burdens connected with the parish, including the provision of schools in the parish. We hold the surviving heritors’ records for the whole of Scotland (our reference HR). These may include items specifically relating to education, or may have references to the provision of a school, schoolmaster and schoolhouse within the general heritors’ minutes.

Records of individual kirk sessions (our references CH2 and CH3) are also worth searching.  For example, Kinghorn Kirk Session records include a volume of minutes of the Committee of St Andrews School 1835-39 (CH2/472/16). References to schools may also be found scattered through the general kirk session, presbytery or synod records.

The Education (Scotland) Act 1872 opened formal education to all children, and placed local control and funding of schools in the hands of school boards. Surviving records of school boards are usually held by the archive office of the creating authority.  We hold some county council records (our reference CO) for Aberdeenshire, Dumfriesshire, Fife, Inverness-shire, Midlothian, Peeblesshire, Selkirkshire, Sutherland and Wigtownshire.  There is an extensive set of minutes of various school boards in the records of Midlothian County Council, for example, Borthwick School Board (CO2/105/1).

Current records of individual schools remain with the schools, but older records of local authority schools are often held on deposit by local archives. These mainly comprise schools’ admission registers and headmasters’ log books. The admission registers give information about individual pupils, including confirmation of education for United States of America citizenship applications. Headmasters’ log books are daily diaries of events, usually recording staff absences, Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools visits, etc. Closure periods usually apply to these.

School Inspection Reports

For centuries, the strongest force in education in Scotland had been the church, and the first school inspections were carried out by representatives of the local presbyteries of the Church of Scotland (CH2). They were concerned with the moral tone of a school, especially religious education.

When the committee appointed by the Presbytery of Lanark in 1823 visited the school at New Lanark set up by the mill-owner Robert Owen, they criticised its emphasis on music and dancing (CH2/234/12).

Growth in school numbers led to the appointment in 1840 of the first of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools.  We hold the series of HMI reports (our reference ED) which is one of the best sources of information on individual schools. The main series of school Inspection reports are (ED16, 17 and 18). Two types of reports exist:

  • the first is more common consisting of short essays on the subjects taught, and the quality of teaching provided
  • the second calls for a numerical breakdown of the number of pupils and teachers, the number and size of the classrooms. Sometimes personal details about specific teachers are included such as their age, period of service, qualifications and former employment.

We also hold reports on independent and grant-maintained schools (ED32).  A number of kindergarten and nursery schools, such as Kinloss RAF Nursery School (ED32/81), appear alongside Scotland’s major public schools such as Loretto (ED32/302) and Gordonstoun (ED32/310).

Other Government Records

Other interesting series in the Scottish Office Education Department files (our reference ED) include:

  • Second World War series (ED24) on such topics as Evacuation Schemes (ED24/7-14) and Air Raid Precautions in Schools (ED24/17-24).
  • School Meals Service (ED52). On the date of one inspection visit to Caithness in 1959, the children were enjoying brown stew, potatoes, carrot and turnip, with jam roly poly and custard to follow. The report also contains the scathing observation “To maintain a satisfactory standard of cleanliness the floor requires to be scrubbed more frequently" (ED52/503).

Educational matters can also come within the remit of other Scottish Office departments.

  • Home and Health Department files include two on education in sanatoria, 1920-1948 (reference HH65/108), in which civil servants debate whether the education of convalescent children is part of the normal education system, and thus the responsibility of the local education authorities, or part of the children’s convalescent and remedial treatment.
  • The Agriculture and Fisheries Department Miscellaneous Files series includes School Gardening Scheme, 1914 (reference AF43/48) and Agricultural Labour: Employment of Schoolchildren, 1917-1939 (reference AF43/76).
Examination Results

We hold the Results of the Leaving, Senior Leaving and Scottish Leaving Certificate Examination Registers, 1908-1965 (reference ED36) and Results of Senior Leaving Certificate Examination Results during the war years, 1940-1945 (reference ED40).  They can be consulted by anyone who holds a valid reader’s ticket.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) operates a service for the issue of replacement certificates (from 1995 onwards). All other qualifications achieved prior to 1995 from predecessor award bodies will be provided as Certified Statements (on SQA certificate paper). There is a standard administrative fee for this service. You can find out about current fees and how to apply on the Scottish Qualifications Authority website.

School Buildings

Aside from the various documentary sources noted above, we hold plans of school buildings, although by no means a comprehensive collection of all Scottish schools. Many come from private collections (perhaps the local landowner had an interest in education and endowed or otherwise benefited a school) and from heritors’ records. Architectural plans usually define intended usage of rooms and may even show the proposed placement of desks or forms. The later the date of the plan, the more accurate, detailed and informative it is likely to be. An 1853 plan for a school at Darnick in Roxburghshire shows separate rooms for boys and girls, and separate playgrounds behind: the boys’ playground is twice the size of the girls’ (reference RHP5525).

Educational Organisations and Endowed Institutions

Some of our gift and deposit collections are of particular interest to education researchers.

  • The Dick Bequest, whose records begin in 1727 and end in 1990, provided grants to augment the salaries of schoolmasters in the north east of Scotland (reference GD1/4). The registers are a useful source of information on the careers of individual teachers as are the records of the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), founded 1707 (reference GD95).
  • Teachers also feature in the records of the Educational Institute of Scotland (reference GD342). Records of this organisation begin in 1785, so it is, with the SSPCK and Dick Bequest records, a good early source on the lives of teachers. These records deal with individual schools and schoolmasters, though not pupils.
  • Records of individual schools include Edinburgh’s John Watson’s (reference GD352), Dean Orphanage (reference GD417) and George Heriot’s (reference GD421) schools.
Further reading

Sinclair, Cecil, ‘Schools’ in 'Tracing Scottish Local History' (HMSO, 1994)

Lindsay, Alison J, 'Sources for the study of education in the Scottish Record Office' in 'Scottish Archives: the Journal of the Scottish Records Association', volume 3, 1997, pp61-68.

Craigie, James, 'A bibliography of Scottish education before 1872' (Scottish Council for Research in Education, 1970).  Appendix C covers manuscript sources and a list of material relating to schools in our private records compiled by Donald Withrington.

Dobson, David, 'Scottish schoolmasters of the 17th century' (St Andrews, 1995)

Cowper, A S, 'SSPCK schoolmasters, 1709-1872' (Scottish Record Society, 1997)