1918: A panacea for Catholic education in Scotland?

Mary Cullen.

The editor of Open House reports on a lecture given by Professor Sir Tom Devine exactly 100 years to the day after the Education (Scotland) Act of 1918 received royal assent.  Was it, he asked, a panacea for Catholic education in Scotland?

The 21st November 1918 was, said Professor Devine, an auspicious day.  The legislation which received royal assent on that date was not only unparalleled in Scotland, but around the world.  A state grounded in Protestant identity conferred important privileges on a poor immigrant Catholic community.  While the state took responsibility for the education of Catholic children, the church retained the unique benefit of the right to approve Catholic teachers, and priests were given free access to Catholic schools.  Within a few years, there was talk of ‘Rome on the rates’.

The legislation was passed ten days after the guns of the First World War fell silent.  Primary education had become compulsory in 1872.  Between 1872 and 1918, the Catholic community provided elementary education to 96,000 children, but only half of them attended school after they were eight or nine.  By the beginning of the war the back of the system was broken – teachers were being paid half the wages of their colleagues in state schools and Catholic schools were not keeping up with educational developments.

The proposal to transfer Catholic schools split the Scottish hierarchy.  Archbishop Maguire of Glasgow was opposed and in Edinburgh Bishop Grey Graham thought it was a sure route to the secularisation of Catholic schools.  Rome sent an emissary to Scotland to assess the situation and directed the church to accept the legislation.  One of the key architects of the Act was Robert Munro, the Liberal Secretary for Scotland and son of a Free Church minister, who was committed to Sir John Struthers, who had been thinking about the proposal since 1911, formulated the plan for overcoming the impasse.  Professor Devine revealed that a senior cleric recently suggested to him that a new Catholic school should choose Sir Robert Munro as its patron saint.

The 1918 Act was foundational: the ‘Magna Carta’ of Scottish Catholic education.  It brought immediate financial relief to the church and cemented the role of the teacher, not only through section 18 of the Act, but by giving them professional status and a good salary.  This was the most important short term impact of the 1918 Act – the Catholic middle class from the 1920s to the 1970s was almost entirely made up of the teaching profession.  The Act was responsible for training new generations, safeguarding Catholic schools, and making some schools excellent.

In the economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s, the first trickle of Catholic graduates struggled to find jobs.  Catholic education stuttered in the face of post war economic and social problems.  Vast numbers of women were unmarried following the deaths of so many men between 1914 and 1918.  It was, said Professor Devine, a generation of extraordinary stoicism.  Emigration rose, the population of Scotland fell, and there was not much money to spend on education.  Keeping children on at school was a major sacrifice.

A further blow was dealt by Education Secretary George Macdonald’ Circular 44 in 1921, which introduced a ‘qualifying’ examination at the end of primary school to determine whether or not children would go on to senior secondary school, the route to university.  The circular, said Professor Devine, ‘branded an entire generation of pupils’.  Against the advice of education experts, Macdonald thought that only a small elite could cope with studies that would lead to university.  It was this ‘sieving of the working class’ which began to kick in the 1940s and 1950s and created the kind of situation where only three boys, and no girls out of Professor Devine’s final year in primary school went to senior secondary school.  Two of the boys pulled out at the end of year two.

Those who returned from the Second World War voted for change.  A Labour majority laid the basis of the welfare state, pension reform and education development.  In the 1950s the Scottish economy was booming, accompanied by a sense of wellbeing.  It produced the vice of ‘not wanting to get on, said Professor Devine, of people ‘not wanting to get above themselves’.

But aspirations began to change and people wanted their children to do better.  The ‘great act of emancipation’ was the introduction of comprehensive education in 1964 – the ‘mark 2 of 1918’ – which brought an end to the eleven plus, and created the context in which to exploit the benefits of the 1918 Act.  The Robbins report of 1963 led to an expansion of existing universities and the creation of new ones.  Five percent of the population went to university in 1951-2; today the figure is 45-50 percent.  The 1918 Act, said professor Devine, created the legal context within which the political, material and educational environment developed.

The children of teachers began to move into disciplines like medicine, accountancy and law.  This was a profound change: the old professions were penetrated by the second generation of Catholic middle classes.  A silent revolution was taking place as the demise of heavy industry choked off the possibility of anti-Catholic discrimination.  Behind the growth of new industries was the new world of certification: the old world of patronage was being replaced by merit.  At the same time, the potential of Catholic secondary schools was emerging.  Supported by training colleges and the professionalism of teachers, the ethos of Catholic schools was seen as enhancing their academic value.  Their message of social justice resonated with the concept of good citizenship.  The praise given to Catholic education by Scotland’s First Minster, Nicola Sturgeon, at this year’s Cardinal Winning lecture, said Professor Devine, brings the wheel full circle.

Historian Sir Tom Devine is Professor Emeritus in the University of Edinburgh and is the author of over 40 books.  He was knighted in 2014 for services to the study of Scottish history, the first historian to be so honoured.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.