Over the last hundred years assessment has become more and more important for the school. In the late nineteenth century, universities began to demand a higher level of education for entrants. Before Hugh Dickie's arrival, Kilmarnock had a poor record in sending pupils to university, but after his arrival, a steady flow began to appear and Kilmarnock became a University Local Examination Centre. A landmark in Scottish education was the institution of a national Leaving Certificate in 1888 with Kilmarnock Academy first presenting pupils in 1892. This was the beginning of ‘Highers', coveted for ensuring entrance to higher education. Assessment was adjusted in the early 1980s with the institution of Standard Grades, and in the late 1990s the Higher Still initiative modernized the traditional system.
One of the most pronounced changes over the last two hundred years of education, however, has been the decline in influence of the Classical past. The ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome have had a decisive influence of western European society and knowledge of their literature and languages was judged to be essential for a proper education. The very word ‘academy', chosen for the name of Kilmarnock's new school which opened in 1808 came from the name which Plato gave to his school of philosophy in Athens in the fifth century B.C.
Almost a century after the first Kilmarnock Academy was opened the influence of the classical past could be seen from the main entrance to the Old Academy of 1898 where the word “Academy' is spelt out in a mosaic, an art form for which the Romans were particularly noted. The floor is visually aligning the school with the tradition of western culture and its humane, civilized values. This is further reinforced by the nearby War Memorial with its classical references. The men listed on it died in defence of a civilization in continuity with its classical past.
But the ideal of Scotland 's academies was to combine study of literature with the apparently all-powerful sciences which were revolutionising society by their practical applications. The master mason's cast which was followed for the design above the entrance to the Kilmarnock Technical School , or ‘Old Tech' is kept in the Old Academy hall. The figures in the cast are clearly derived from classical examples, but they are surrounded by modern machinery. It is an icon which proclaims that the traditional values of the classical civilization will be combined with contemporary applied science.
The classical languages had a prominent place in an academic education and they were promoted at Kilmarnock Academy . Until earlier in the twentieth century knowledge of Latin was needed for university entrance. Consequently the Classics teacher was one of the most important individuals in the school. Even the teaching of Art was affected. The image of the human body which western Europeans have is strongly influenced by the ideal one of classical times. Life drawing, it was felt would be greatly enhanced by having plaster casts of Roman statues and Kilmarnock Academy possesses two, originally held in the Old Tech but now kept in the Old Academy. The nineteenth century building is full of reminders of the classical past. Over the late twentieth century, however, the position of the Classics has been dramatically eroded and the subject ceased being taught in the school in the late 1980s.
The very naming if the school as an ‘academy', however, indicated that the education that was to be offered was to fit pupils for the developing nineteenth-century commercial society. This was the ideal which the Scottish academy model was meant to fulfil. The stress on science in the later nineteenth century and on technical education in the early twentieth century indicated that local educationalists were aware of the need to keep in touch with the forces of society, particularly those of a town such as Kilmarnock . One of the most marked contemporary innovations has been the development of the personal computer (PC). A new Technology Extension was opened in Kilmarnock Academy at a cost of £0.5 million in 1996 to house those subjects most affected by PCs. The original Academy was formed to cope with a changing society and throughout its history Kilmarnock Academy has continued to adapt itself to the needs of incessant social alterations. Discipline, in keeping with the ethos of society and the banning of the belt in 1984, is now less severe. But some enduring ideals of Scottish education continue: a pride taken in learning, a devotion to academic standards, and the democratic impulse of an education accessible to all.
Kilmarnock Academy has seen many changes. It began as a burgh school, formed under local initiative. As Scottish education came increasingly under the direction of central government from the late nineteenth century onwards, the school continued to evolve, and it is now a modern comprehensive. Rooted in the town it has presided over from its hilltop site for over a hundred years, Kilmarnock Academy exists to bring the gift of education and its transforming power to that community.
For further reading:
William Boyd, Education in Ayrshire through Seven Centuries (1961).
Frank Donnelly, The History of Kilmarnock Academy (1998).
J. A. Mackay, Kilmarnock: a history of the Burgh of Kilmarnock and of Kilmarnock & Loudoun District (1992).