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A fresh perspective on the overlooked contribution of lay women and Religious Orders to Catholic education

‘A History of Catholic Education and Schooling in Scotland: New Perspectives’ takes a fresh look at what the Archbishop of Glasgow recently referred to as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Church in Scotland. In these four extracts, the writers discuss the role of the Orders, lay women, and the 1918 Education Act.

Catholic education before the 1918 act, by Professor Stephen McKinney

The Education (Scotland) Act, 1918 is an extraordinary piece of legislation that is rightly highlighted when discussing the origins of state-funded Catholic schooling in Scotland.

However, it is important to view the 1918 Act in the context of the long history of Catholic education in Scotland.

The history can be traced back to St Columba in the sixth century. The history later records different types of schools, for example, Song (or Sang) schools attached to collegiate churches and cathedrals and Grammar schools.

It also includes the foundation of the three oldest universities in Scotland in the 15th century: St Andrew’s, Glasgow and Aberdeen. The roots of contemporary state-funded Catholic schools in the Post Reformation period are in the establishment of Catholic schools in Paisley in 1816 and Glasgow in 1817.


Educating the poor

At that time the Church of Scotland and Glasgow City magistrates were also establishing schools in Glasgow. They had the same aim as the Catholic schools—to educate the poor children of the city.

The number of Catholic schools in Glasgow and Scotland increased as the Catholic population grew as a result of migration, mainly from Ireland. In the periods leading up to the 1872 and 1918 Education Acts there are a number of key people who are instrumental in the development and maintenance of Catholic schools.

The bishops who promoted Catholic schooling and the priests who established local schools are of course acknowledged as making an enormous contribution to this development. There are other key people whose contribution needs to be recovered from the history and recognised more widely.


Religious orders

Female and male religious orders and congregations from Ireland, France, Belgium and England established Catholic primary and secondary schools throughout Scotland. The following were all to be highly influential in places such as Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Inverness, Paisley, Dundee and Dumfries: The Ursulines of Jesus, the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, the Sisters of Mercy, the Faithful Companions of Jesus, the Sisters of Notre Dame, the Marist Brothers and the Jesuits.

The contribution of the Sisters of Notre Dame and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart to teacher training was to prove invaluable in the creation of a qualified Catholic teacher workforce.

Notre Dame Teacher Training College for Women was opened in Glasgow in 1895 and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart established St Margaret’s College in Edinburgh in 1920. The role of the lay female teachers was crucial to the staffing of the Catholic schools throughout Scotland, especially the primary schools.



The Education (Scotland) Act, 1872 was an attempt to create a standardised system of schooling in Scotland by introducing compulsory schooling for children aged five to 13 and creating local school boards that would administer a new ‘public’ school system.

The boards would incorporate many of the pre-existing schools, especially the major types of denominational schooling, although there would be no financial compensation for schools that transferred.

The vast majority of the Presbyterian schools transferred. The Act offered the possibility of transferring the Catholic schools to the state. This would have solved some of the challenges faced by Catholic schools, certainly the pressing financial challenges of funding the schools.

The decision taken by the Catholic Church at this point was that the Catholic schools would not be transferred.

There were serious anxieties that the denominational status of the Catholic schools would be compromised or lost within the proposed system of school boards, that existing practice in Catholic religious instruction and observance would not be preserved and that Catholic schools would no longer be able to approve their teachers. The Catholic schools continued to be self-supported.



Poverty and lack of resources are major themes of the history of Catholic schools leading up to the Education (Scotland) Act, 1918. The poverty of many Catholic families was a recurring issue that impacted on the Catholic schools.

Children would be required to help at home or work to support the family. This would mean the children would leave school at an early age or their attendance would be erratic, causing serious disruption to their schooling.

Those Catholic children who were able to attend school more regularly were normally not educated much beyond primary school level.

The Catholic parishes had to finance the payment of teachers and pay for the resources for the local Catholic school. The payment of teachers in Catholic schools was highly problematic as they were paid less—in some instances considerably less—than the teachers in the new state sector.


Poor condition

Many Catholic schools were in poor physical condition and there was a lack of teaching resources. The Education (Scotland) Act, 1918, section 18, the result of concerted negotiation, offered a new set of conditions for the transferral of denominational schools to the state system.

The conditions of section 18 allowed voluntary or denominational schools to be sold or leased to the education authority. Catholic schools are not specifically mentioned as the legislation was addressed to a wider group that included the Episcopal schools, a small number of Presbyterian schools and other voluntary schools that had not transferred after the 1872 Act.

The denominational schools would be funded and maintained by the state. The teachers would have to be suitably qualified, but their religious belief and character would be approved by the denominational body. Religious observance and instruction would continue in accordance with the existing practice.



The teachers in the transferred denominational schools would be paid the same salary as staff in other state schools.

The new conditions enabled the continued existence of distinctive Catholic schooling within the state system.

The transferral of the schools was perhaps slower than is normally understood and there were some protracted debates about the funding of new Catholic schools but, by the late 1920s, the majority of the Catholic schools had been sold to the local authorities.

– Professor Stephen McKinney is Leader of Pedagogy, Praxis and Faith Research and Teaching Group and member of St Andrew’s Foundation, School of Education, University of Glasgow.



Lay women teachers and Catholic education before the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act, By Dr Jane McDermid 

The Catholic Church’s decision to remain outside the national system of education set up in 1872 left it with significant challenges, notably in the schooling of the poor, the majority of its congregation.

It looked to the religious orders to provide leadership, but they were soon overtaken by the enormous expansion of schooling and their efforts became concentrated on larger urban centres.

Unable to afford the wages paid even by the smallest school boards, or match state support for the professional development of teachers, the Church had little success in attracting lay men, so turned to unqualified lay women.


Church mission

Yet teaching gave this cheap source of labour a key role in the Church’s mission to the poor. At first seen as naturally suited to teach infants and girls, the impact of mass Irish migration led to such a demand for teachers that lay female assistants were increasingly employed even in boys’ schools.

By 1880 there were three to four times as many lay women as men at all levels of schooling in the Glasgow Archdiocese while small town and rural schools were mainly mixed-sexed with a predominantly lay female staff.

Given the poor quality of their own education (even by 1890, only two-thirds of lay mistresses were trained), the curriculum they taught was generally limited to the basics with the addition of domestic subjects for girls, a heavy burden on mistresses in under-staffed, over-crowded mixed-sex schools.


Steering the ship

Moreover, while reverend managers visited regularly, the lay mistress was responsible for the day-to-day running of the school, often dealing with parents in need of their children’s help at home or in employment.

Despite such huge odds, they made progress, though even with the opening of Dowanhill training college by the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1895, the numbers among them with qualifications remained small.

The incorporation of Catholic schools into the national system through the 1918 Act was therefore crucial in raising standards generally and widening the professional opportunities for these women.


Central roles

By then, the four per cent of teachers who were members of religious orders were concentrated in Lowland secondary schools, orphanages and reformatories.

From the Church’s early reliance on lay mistresses as the indispensable foot soldiers of primary education, these women had carved out a central role in a key denominational institution, one which continues to this day.

– Dr Jane McDermid is an emeritus fellow in History at Southampton University.



The Role of male religious orders in education in Scotland prior to 1918, by Professor Tom O’Donoghue  

In their more than 16 centuries of existence, religious orders have experienced cycles of expansion, stagnation, and even collapse. Yet, over the 19th century, more than 600 new religious orders were founded worldwide.

A distinguishing feature of these new orders, was that they were oriented around specific areas of work, of which teaching was one of the most prominent.

Before 1560, the religious in Scotland, members of the ‘old orders,’ were monks, canons regular and friars in the case of men, while the women were few in number and were strictly enclosed.

Some of the old orders returned in the 19th century but they were a very small minority. The great majority of the orders that arrived were termed ‘active’ orders and were unenclosed.


Serving the people

These orders of Sisters and Brothers came at the request of the clergy in order to provide elementary Catholic education for the poor children in the Lowland towns and to care for the sick and destitute in the urban ghettoes.

In line with the Church’s commitment to building up a Catholic middle class as well as providing a basic elementary education for the great majority, two Glasgow boys’ schools, St Mungo’s Marist Brothers school and St Aloysius’ Jesuit school were established amongst the heavy Clydeside concentration of Catholics.

The Marist Brothers established St Mungo’s in 1858 and followed up with schools in Dundee (1860), Dumfries (1873), Edinburgh (1877-88), St Kentigern’s, Glasgow (1907) and St Joseph’s, Glasgow (1919).

St Aloysius’ College was established by the Jesuits in 1859, followed by Sacred Heart Edinburgh (1860), Dalkeith, Midlothian (1861), Galashiels (1863- 1902), Airdrie (1916-17) and Bothwell (1917). The Benedictine monks opened a school in their monastery at Fort Augustus in 1880.


New schools

Early in the next century the De La Salle Brothers commenced the provision of education; they opened schools in Tranent, East Lothian (1914), in Bishopbriggs, Glasgow (1915), in Edinburgh (1918) and in Slatefield, Glasgow (1919).

Notwithstanding the large Irish proportion of the Catholic population in Scotland, the Irish Christian Brothers did not open a school in the country until 1951. Dr Gillies, Bishop of Edinburgh, requested that the order open a school at Leith in 1838, but this did not eventuate.

There was a similar outcome following an attempt in 1932, by Archbishop McDonald of St Andrews & Edinburgh to persuade the order to open an industrial school in Edinburgh.

The male teaching orders also engaged in social and community work through the St Vincent de Paul Society, through the provision of evening schools for working males, and through the Parish Young Men’s Society (to establish lending libraries, brass band groups and drama societies).



In making the points outlined above, it is important not to overemphasise the influence of the teaching religious relative to that of lay teachers since there were not enough nuns, brothers and priests to fill the places of teachers in the Catholic schools of Scotland at the time.

Indeed, by 1918 only four per cent of the country’s Catholic school teachers were members of religious orders. Also, while nearly all Catholic secondary schools were in their hands, the low numbers involved were such that they were not able to provide opportunities for Catholic secondary school education for all who desired to have it.

Furthermore, the concentration of teaching religious was in Glasgow and, to a lesser extent, in Paisley, Dundee and Greenock. As a result, the primary schools in rural towns and rural districts throughout the country were staffed primarily by lay women.

– Tom O’Donoghue is a professor at the University of Western Australia.



The Role of Female Religious in education in Scotland in the 19th Century, by Professor Karly Kehoe

In contrast to both England and Ireland, Scotland was a nation that had successfully used education to maintain a distinct identity within the British union and the system of Catholic education that emerged from the mid-19th century reflected that.

Women Religious, particularly those from active congregations, who took simple as opposed to solemn vows, began to assume the bulk of the responsibility for elementary education there from the early 1850s and became an important dimension of Scotland’s educational tradition in the process.

Their arrival corresponded with the rapid and uncontrolled growth of centres like Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee that were experiencing significant in-migration from Ireland and the north of Scotland.


Please to religious

Glasgow bore the brunt and, unable to cope with the humanitarian crisis unfolding around them, some of its more proactive priests, such as Fr Peter Forbes, had made desperate pleas to religious communities in France and Ireland to send sisters to set up convents in Glasgow.

Their pleas corresponded with the rapid expansion of the number of women entering the religious life—teaching communities were extremely popular.

The first congregations to establish a presence in Scotland were the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception (French) and the Sisters of Mercy (Irish).


Growing communities

Both settled in Glasgow in the late 1840s before making additional foundations throughout Scotland. It was in the classrooms, in the spaces that existed between the state and the Church, where the influence of the women Religious was most keenly felt because not only did they provide classroom teachers, but their growing communities enabled them to implement a degree of standardisation that had been largely absent.

In focussing their efforts on girls and young women these Roman Catholic Sisters, while expanding the social authority of Catholicism, expanded dramatically the base of Scottish education and made it more democratic than it had ever been.

– Karly Kehoe is a professor at St Mary’s University, Nova Scotia.

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