The education system in Scotland during Shelia’s childhood was quite different from that with which we are currently familiar in the States. School for children began at age five as opposed to six and continued until age 12, known as primary school. Before graduating, each student would take the qualifying Exam, which would determine where they would pursue their secondary education and for how long. An individual’s success in the exam was “based on a number of factors, namely, the results of Intelligence tests, teachers’ estimates, an examination in English and Arithmetic, and the pupil’s previous record” (Mackintosh 153).
Those who scored highest were placed in senior secondary school, where they could continue their studies until age 18. The rest were placed in junior secondary school, concluding their education as early as age 15. On paper, this amounted to another four years of learning but in practice more often amounted to just over three, many students all too eager to leave school on or near their 15th birthday instead of completing their final academic year. “We didn’t have the term ‘dropout’ because nobody ‘dropped out.’ You went as long as you had to and if you didn’t want to go any further, you left. There was no stigma attached to it” (Interview). Still, there was immense pressure on students near the end of their primary education to score as high on the Qualifying Exam as possible. After all, reaching senior secondary status afforded students opportunities that remained elusive otherwise, such as the possibility of ever attending university. The Qualifying Exam, it should be noted, has been criticized as being excessively difficult and administered too early in life to accurately assess the exam taker’s academic potential.
Dumfries Academy was the only senior-secondary school near Sheila’s home and even offered an extra year reserved specifically for college-bound students. Naturally, students had to score high on the eleven-plus exam if they had any hope of entry. “There were seven levels of passing and in order to continue on at Dumfries Academy, you had to pass in one of the two top levels” (Interview). Knowing the transition from a small rural schoolhouse like Crossford to a more densely populated urban setting would be a big adjustment, Jessie sent all her children to finish their last two years of primary education in Dumfries so they could get acclimated. “It was quite a culture shock because I had been one of three in my class out of a total of 18 kids. I was suddenly in a class of about 25-30 my same age” (Interview).
Although her sister made it to Dumfries Academy with little trouble, Shelia hit a snag. One year before she could apply, the rules changed, sorting students according to their districts, meaning Sheila would instead be sent to Morton Academy in Thornhill to continue her studies. She was not pleased. “I kicked up a big fuss. ‘I don’t want to go there! I’m staying in Dumfries!” (Interview). Jessie and Charlie agreed that it did not make much sense for their daughter to spend three years at Morton only to move back to Dumfries, make new friends, and become familiar with the lay of the land when she could just go there directly. Jessie took her case directly to the chairman of the school board and the exchange that followed has become a McCrae family legend. The chairman pulled up Sheila’s control