The Academy's primary department finally closed in 1947. A bigger transformation came in 1969 when Kilmarnock Academy became a comprehensive secondary school. There always had been a tension between its existence to serve the community around it and its selection of an élite: either those who could afford it in the days of fees or those with the intelligence to pass the qualifying exam. The erection of the North Hamilton Street building in 1875 had brought criticism in letters to The Kilmarnock Standard that it was money being spent on the well-to-do of the town. When the provision of technical education was being reviewed in 1891, the Burgh School Board were at pains to point out that Kilmarnock was ‘not a Higher Class School, but a school for all classes , where a higher education can be obtained at a low fee' (Burgh School Board to the County Council of Ayrshire, 24 November 1891).
Undoubtedly attempts were made in Kilmarnock to ameliorate the worst effects of paying for education. But despite the best efforts in rejecting contemporary educational élitist language by the Kilmarnock Board, William McIlvanney in Docherty (1975), his novel set in early twentieth-century High Street, Kilmarnock , is more accurate. He portrays the young Conn Docherty as being reluctant to go the Academy because it will draw him away from his working-class roots. As it happens, his miner father could not afford it anyway. William Bryden, an actual Academy pupil, remembered his alarm at being sent to a place ‘classed as a ‘snob' school for privileged children' ( The Kilmarnock Standard , 17 February 1995, p.20). There were pupils of working-class parentage in the inter-war years, such as Matthew Black , later Principal of St Mary's College, St Andrews, who were able to complete their education and enter university; but the financial difficulties which faced Robert Colquhoun , who became a professional artist and whose parents could not afford to maintain him at school, was more typical of most children of working-class background in this period.
An important part of a pupil's school life before the advent of comprehensive education was the Qualifying Examination, taken at the end of primary school, which would determine whether he or she would progress to senior secondary school. A manuscript note book, preserved in Kilmarnock Academy , records the tests administered to the Qualifying class in Kilmarnock Academy Primary from 1914 until 1919. It is a fascinating record of what pupils were expected to be proficient in. In addition to essay writing and arithmetic there was dictation and mental arithmetic—these last two to check on proficiency in spelling and number. These were skills which were stressed until the 1960s. The record book also contains analysis of the results, a typical page reading:
Composition Girls 8.7
Full marks 10 Over-all 8.8
Dictation Girls 6.5
Full marks 10 Over-all 5.8
Reading Girls 8
Full marks Over-all 7.3
Mental Arithmetic Girls 2.5
Full marks 5 Over-all 2.7
Arithmetic Girls 11.8
Full marks 15 Over-all 10.9
These results show that the girls in the Qualifying Class were on the whole doing better than the boys. However, they were not at that time encouraged to continue their later education as much as the boys were. The academic potential of many of them would remain unfulfilled. Girls comprised only just over a quarter of the pupils in the mid-1860s. The earliest extant Kilmarnock Academy roll book gives as the cause for many girls leaving school ‘required at home'—on one page for 1887 it appears against twenty-seven out of fifty girls' names. Two years later Hugh Dickie was complaining concerning the science examinations: ‘Many, especially girls have dropped out by the parents' request, as science instruction does not seem to them an essential part of education' (‘Kilmarnock Academy Log Book', Vol. 1, April 1889). Those former pupils who were successful in later life were mostly men. This was one further way in which education discriminated against a group within society.
In 1945 the final abolition of fees after the school leaving age for all pupils of ability in Scotland eased the perception of the school as being one for ‘snobs'. In his novel, The Kiln (1996), set in post-World War II Kilmarnock, William McIlvanney has Conn Docherty's son attend the Academy and go on to university. This new openness of education in the 1940s and 1950s brought a flowering for the school with many pupils of the period achieving notable success in later life. McIlvanney himself was one of them. The Academy becoming comprehensive in 1968 meant that it was now truly open to all, irrespective of wealth or ability.
Initially it brought a massive expansion for the school, the roll rising to 1 940 pupils in session 1976-7. To ease the pressures, a new building costing £1 million was opened in 1968 to create extra classrooms. In addition three junior secondaries in the Kilmarnock Academy area became comprehensive secondaries—Grange, James Hamilton and Stewarton academies—and one new school, Loudoun Academy , has been created. The creation of other schools has meant some contraction for Kilmarnock Academy , and in 1997 the Old Tech building was closed. But by becoming comprehensive, a six-year secondary education has been made available to all, the culmination of a long trend in Scottish education.
During the course of the twentieth century the exclusion of women from further schooling has been gradually eroded. Nowadays girls and boys have equal opportunities in education the first 5-14 National Tests administered within Kilmarnock Academy in 1997-8 seem to indicate that girls are often doing better educationally than boys. Certainly, as the twentieth century progressed, many of the school's most able pupils were girls. Here is one further way in which Kilmarnock Academy has become more accessible to all. Now it has, for the first time in its history, a woman as headteacher, Carole Ford , who was appointed in 1997.