Education (Scotland) Act 1872

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Education (Scotland) Act 1872
Act of Parliament
Citation35 & 36 Vict. c. 62
Territorial extentScotland
Other legislation
Relates toElementary Education Act 1870 (E&W)
Text of the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from

The Education (Scotland) Act 1872 (35 & 36 Vict. c. 62), also known as Forster's Education Act made primary education universal and mandatory in Scotland; poverty was no longer an excuse for truancy.

The act mandated the exclusive use of English-medium education in Scotland, in effect banning Scottish Gaelic medium education. For this reason it is credited with causing substantial harm to the Scottish Gaelic language and contributing to its overall decline.[1][2]


In 1866 the government established the Argyll Commission, under Whig grandee George Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, to look into the schooling system. It found that of 500,000 children in need of education 200,000 were receiving it under efficient conditions, 200,000 in schools of doubtful merit, without any inspection and 90,000 were receiving no education at all. Although this compared favourably with the situation in England, with 14% more children in education and with relatively low illiteracy rates of between 10 and 20%, similar to those in the best-educated nations such as those in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Scandinavia, the report was used as support for widespread reform. The result was the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act, based on that passed for England and Wales as the Elementary Education Act 1870, but providing a more comprehensive solution.[3]

The Act[edit]

Under the act approximately 1,000 regional school boards were established[4] and, unlike in England where they merely attempted to fill gaps in provision, immediately took over the schools of the old and new kirks and were able to begin to enforce attendance, rather than after the decade necessary in England.[3] Some ragged and industrial schools requested to be taken over by the boards, while others continued as Sunday schools.[5] All children aged from 5 to 13 years were to attend. Poverty was not accepted as an excuse and some help was supplied under the Poor laws. This was enforced by the School Attendance Committee, while the boards busied themselves with building to fill the gaps in provision. This resulted in a major programme that created large numbers of grand, purpose-built schools.[3] Overall administration was in the hands of the Scotch (later Scottish) Education Department in London.[6] Demand for places was high and for a generation after the act there was overcrowding in many classrooms, with up to 70 children being taught in one room. The emphasis on a set number of passes at exams also led to much learning by rote and the system of inspection led to even the weakest children being drilled with certain facts.[3]

Effect on Gaelic[edit]

The Education (Scotland) Act 1872 effectively put an end to non-English medium education and repressed Gaelic with pupils being punished for speaking the language.[7] Pupils were belted if caught speaking in Gaelic and beaten again if they did not reveal the names of other students speaking Gaelic.[1] The effect of the education act upon the Gaelic language has been described as "disastrous"[8] and by denying the value of Gaelic culture and language, contributed to destroying the self-respect of Gaelic communities.[9] It was a continuation of a general policy (by both Scottish and, after 1707, British governments) which aimed at Anglicisation.[8]

As a result of facing punishment and humiliation for speaking Gaelic, many parents decided not to pass on the language to their children, resulting in language shift.[10] Scottish Gaelic medium education was not established until the 1980s, and the impact of the Act is still being felt in Gaelic communities today.[1][9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "1872 Education Act's impact on Gaelic to be explored". BBC News Online. Retrieved 13 January 2017.
  2. ^ Robertson, Boyd (2001). Gaelic: the Gaelic language in education in the UK. Leeuwarden: Mercator-Education.
  3. ^ a b c d Checkland, Olive; Checkland, Sydney (1989). Industry and Ethos: Scotland, 1832–1914. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 112–13. ISBN 0748601023.
  4. ^ Patterson, L. (2001). "Schools and schooling: 3. Mass education 1872–present". In Lynch, Michael (ed.). The Oxford Companion to Scottish History. Oxford University Press. pp. 566–9. ISBN 0-19-211696-7.
  5. ^ Morton, Graeme (2012). Ourselves and Others: Scotland 1832–1914. Edinburgh University Press. p. 181. ISBN 0748620494.
  6. ^ "Education records", National Archives of Scotland, 2006, archived from the original on 2 July 2011
  7. ^ Smakman, Dick; Smith-Christmas, Cassandra. "Gaelic Language Erosion and Revitalization on the Isle of Skye, Scotland" (PDF). University of Leiden.
  8. ^ a b Jones, Charles (1997). The Edinburgh history of the Scots language. Edinburgh University Press. p. 568. Retrieved 22 November 2011.
  9. ^ a b Hunter, James (3 July 2014). On the Other Side of Sorrow: Nature and People in the Scottish Highlands. Birlinn. Retrieved 15 January 2017.
  10. ^ Dunbar, Robert (27 October 1999). "The European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages: Some Reflections from a Scottish Gaelic Perspective". In Fottrell, Deirdre; Bowring, Bill (eds.). Minority and Group Rights in the New Millennium. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 117. Retrieved 13 January 2017.