The School Board of Glasgow - Times Past

In partnership with the Glasgow Times​, our archivists are exploring Glasgow's fascinating history. This week, Barbara Neilson writes about the School Board of Glasgow and its schools.

If you grew up in Glasgow, the odds are good that you received at least some of your education in a school board building. Schools like Abbotsford (1879), Washington Street (1890) and Martyrs (1897) were all built by a single school board which was the largest in Scotland: the School Board of Glasgow.

The Board was created by the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 which celebrates its 150th anniversary next year. The Act made education compulsory for all children aged between five and thirteen years old. Close to a thousand school boards were created which were legally required to provide a school place for each child in its area. The Act became the catalyst for a massive building and training programme throughout the country to supply the schools and teachers required to fulfil the boards’ legal obligations.  

The school board records we hold reflect this extraordinary investment in the city’s school buildings, teachers, pupils and curricula. Those of the School Board of Glasgow (established in 1873) are particularly illuminating since it was a pioneer in many areas from its administration and introduction of teacher training to the architecture of its schools. 

The Board had fifteen elected members. Elections were triennial, votes were secret and women as well as men could vote for, and stand for election as, school board members. Glasgow elected several female board members including Grace Chalmers Paterson (b. 1843) who served for over two decades and who was also the first principal of the Glasgow School of Cookery. 

The task before the newly created Board was enormous. It was now responsible for educating almost 90,000 children within the city. However, with only two hundred existing schools available for the purpose, there was a shortfall of almost 30,000 places. Clearly, more schools were needed. An intensive building programme began with an ambitious target: thirty new schools. This was achieved within a decade and eventually over 70 new schools were built, the last being Bernard Street in 1916. 

Several significant Glasgow schools are among the roster. Arguably the most famous was, and continues to be, Scotland Street School designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The Board was unusual in Scotland as it engaged private architects to design its schools rather than rely solely on its own employed architects as other boards did. The approach was not without its drawbacks. Mackintosh’s relationship with the Board was tumultuous at times as he chafed against a strict design remit and was even admonished for diverging from the agreed plans. Yet, if the Board hadn’t favoured private architects, the iconic Scotland Street School and other architecturally diverse school buildings would never have been built.

The Board was wound up and replaced by the Glasgow Education Authority in 1918. Its ending marked forty-five years of the largest investment in the city’s schools up until that point and gifted Glasgow an architectural legacy still evident in the city today.

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