curiosity about the ways of the world

Schools ahead of their time – and ours

What will the future bring? Children at my sons’ primary school down the road had bright ideas nearly twenty-five years ago. 

“…a robot teacher in every classroom, ‘see-through’ classrooms made of glass, blackboards rubbed clean at the touch of a switch and electronically operated toilets.”

The school of the future hasn’t turned out quite as pupils imagined in 1996 though ‘see-through classrooms and electronically operated toilets’ could come in handy to combat Covid-19.  The centenary book my sons and I helped to produce turned up in a lockdown study clear-out. A bit of a museum piece, Broughton Primary 100 casts not always favourable light on the present.  

Writing this for Sceptical Scot’s last issue before the holiday break, I was struck by a cruel irony we had never anticipated at the parent-teacher-pupil editorial meetings 25 years ago: the school of the future would have much in common with the school of the past.  In the late 19th century medical officers of health were acutely aware of the links between ill health, mortality and poverty.  That harsh reality reinforced again by the latest National Register of Scotland report of deaths involving Covid-19:

“People in the most deprived areas were 2.1 times more likely to die with COVID-19 than those living in the least deprived areas.”

National Register of Scotland July 2020

A crucial difference between then and now – in the 1890s local medical officers of health had the power to take pre-emptive action where and when it was needed. 

Visions of the future, by children of Broughton Primary School 1996

Almost a quarter of a century ago, the then Broughton Primary headteacher Liz Gordon wanted ‘an Apple Mac computer and multi-media facilities in every classroom’. And, in the final chapter, we wondered fancifully how that might have sounded to children writing on slates one hundred years earlier. What would they have made of the emerging electronic wonders of the imminent 21st century?

In 2020 we might ask what would teachers, pupils or parents of 1896 make of the state we are in now?  Their handsome new school closed and shuttered for four months? The quandary of opening up while a vigorous virus circulates unseen.  It’s intriguing to rediscover that our primary school story begins with a tribute to the late 19th century pioneering approach to health, hygiene and infectious diseases. 

Providing for body and mind

Broughton Primary School seen from closed gate

When Broughton Elementary School opened in September 1896, Edinburgh had been expanding uncomfortably fast, like other cities, with people flooding in to take the new industrial jobs.  Infectious diseases rampaged through streets of overcrowded tenements.  Then, as now, ill health and mortality were closely connected with low pay and poor housing. 

In the cities conditions were much less healthy and overcrowding was a marked feature of life for the urban poor.

W W Knox

This new school, a tall sandstone building on a corner between dairy farms and smoking factories, looked imposing and self-important. It was built to impress because it had an important role to play.  Children were still dying of typhoid and diphtheria, and young people with ambition boarded emigration ships from Leith to the New World. 

Edinburgh School Board wanted to improve the health of a new generation in body and mind.  Broughton Elementary School with airy classrooms, swimming pool, gymnasium, laboratories, WCs and carefully calculated ventilation was designed by the board’s own architect, Robert Wilson, to meet ideals which were well ahead of their time.  Perhaps they still are.  

Meet the medical officer of health 

Some of the most poignant and telling entries in the School Log and School Board Minutes refer to health and social conditions.  

Edinburgh was emerging as a pioneer of children’s health. Perhaps that’s not surprising. The city had appointed their first medical officer in 1862, and Henry Duncan Littlejohn sounds a force of nature – his 1865 report on the Sanitary Condition of Edinburgh is regarded as ‘a landmark in urban management and public health administration’.  The Lancet (no less) described it as ‘monumental’. 

Littlejohn was a devil for data.  “He divided the city into 19 districts and used census-derived data to determine the population within each. He made personal observations of the sanitary conditions in the different districts and related these to the mortality data for residents of the areas obtained from the Registrar General for Scotland.” 

A year after the opening of Broughton Elementary, the Public Health (Scotland) Act 1897 gave significant powers to medical officers and sanitary inspectors. Edinburgh was the first place in Scotland to appoint a Schools Medical Officer in 1907 (the year before Littlejohn’s retirement). By then schools were already required to report outbreaks of whooping cough, measles and scarlet fever to the city’s medical officer, “each day if necessary.”  Weights and heights of all pupils were taken, air tests and classroom temperatures routinely monitored.  The School Log notes in 1905: “Room 13 below 50 degrees, Fire lighted at 7.30 am, HM tells janitor to light it earlier.”

Disinfecting the school 

In classes of 90, and more, epidemics spread rapidly, whatever the weather. School Log, May 12 1902: “School closed at 2.30 to allow for disinfection of school during epidemic of measles.”

When the janitor’s youngest child went down with measles, his house was put in quarantine. When scarlet fever broke out in nearby Rosslyn Crescent and Beaverbank, the janitor disinfected the school with carbolic acid. 

Medical officers of health, according to Prof Tom Devine were a formidable breed. He names J B Russell in Glasgow, Mathew Hay in Aberdeen and Henry Littlejohn in Edinburgh. “They led the battle for cleanliness, drainage, public parks, civic fever hospitals, better housing and collections of statistics to the continual embarrassment of the city fathers.” 

Their influence spread and lingered in cities across Britain. In 1950s London, my husband remembers his mother receiving a visit from the health visitor when she sent a note of absence – if he had an infectious disease, the school needed to know. But after WW2, medical officers of health increasingly relinquished responsibilities to the newly established NHS and other agencies.  From 1972 the National Health Service (Scotland) Act transferred their roles to the new Health Boards and two years later the post of MOH was discontinued, as Glasgow University records: “to the regret of many who remembered their forcible approach to public health in Britain.” 

Back to the future?

Our future visions in 1996 ended with hopes for the changing landscape around the old Victorian building. In place of smoking factories brownfield sites offered scope for new homes, with open green space for community gardens and tree planting. Some of that came to pass though no-one foresaw that the new homes of nearby ‘Hopetoun Urban Village’ would provide such fertile ground for Airbnb.  

What now? In 2020 we might share some of the special excitement of 1896 children starting school, ‘marching in to the rhythm of a piano on the landing’ – and note with shame that the Committee for Feeding and Clothing Destitute Children (“On Condition of Their attendance at School”) was handing out clothing and free meals – “to very poor children a ticket for breakfast is also given.”

Not enough has changed, but we might learn from the progressive thinking which gave power to local public health officers who understood local lives and deaths.  

Broughton Primary 100, front cover
Front cover of Broughton Primary 100 centenary book. (I have copies to spare if anyone would like one)

This was first published on Sceptical Scot in an edition focusing on education in Scotland.


  1. fay

    Thanks for your comments – very interesting observations on your grandfather’s experience in the Gorbals, Abi.

    And I’m very much looking forward to meeting Maria when you come to pick up your copy of the souvenir book. It will be interesting to compare notes. My three sons were at Broughton Primary between 1983 and 1996, a very different era.

    What strikes me re-reading our little history is how optimistic the young people were 25 years ago, there’s evidently great pride in the school’s present. But quirky hopes for the future indicate a ‘can do’ spirit. I wonder where those young folk are now, and how today’s primary school children see the future?

    Wishing all parents, teachers and children the very best of returns to school life in August (the official date so far is 11th August, Helena). I’m newly aware of the unequal impact of covid and lockdown on so many households. With the economic impact still to be felt, there’s even greater imperative in ensuring children from deprived areas have access to the benefits enjoyed by wealthier families. Many parents simply can’t afford digital devices – or the cost of broadband to receive government sponsored teaching packages.

  2. Marie Hernandez

    I’d love a copy. Both my boys attended this school from 2014 to 2020. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Helena martins

    I need to know what times kids is going to school

  4. Abi

    My grand father – who ended up being a professor of education, started his life teaching in the Gorbals where he remembered children being so malnourished that their bladders would work constantly and involuntarily. He became an advocate for education being a way out of poverty and worked for the UN. Low wages mean bad diets and ill health – is it not time we redistributed wealth and had fair wages ? We are after all one of the G7 countries …..otherwise nearly a century on we are not far off what was happening a hundred years ago.

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