The 1872 Scottish Education Act had mixed consequences for Kilmarnock Academy . School boards were established throughout Scotland . It was the action of the Kilmarnock Board which led to the erection of a new Elizabethan Gothic building for the Academy costing £4 500. Its foundation stone was laid on 20 November 1875. It stood on the corner of Woodstock Street and North Hamilton Street , on the site of the present-day Woodstock Centre and was opened in August 1876.
That same year Hugh Dickie (pictured left) was appointed rector. By the provisions of the 1872 Act, government grants were provided to elementary schools only, and to avoid forfeiting its funding, Kilmarnock Academy had to operate as one. Dickie solved the problem by giving science a prominent place in the curriculum, thus securing additional funding from the London-based South Kensington Science and Art Department .
To avoid conflicting with the elementary school timetable (and thus forfeiting such government funds as there were) science classes were from 9 until 10 o'clock in the morning. Initially science was taught by lectures and demonstrations, but the construction of the first science laboratory in an Ayrshire school at Kilmarnock Academy in the late 1880s eventually allowed practical work too.
The curriculum by this period was wide-ranging. In addition to English and Mathematics, both classical and modern languages were taught. The school continued to be distinguished for its science teaching which included not only chemistry, physics and biology, but astronomy and geology too. On the practical side there was agriculture, domestic economy and bookkeeping. Each subject taken cost ten shillings per quarter, £10 being the average fee paid by pupils per session—more than most people could afford. Lord Boyd Orr , a later winner of the Nobel Prize, who entered Kilmarnock Academy in 1893 commented on the difficulties his contemporaries faced: “It was a hard life, common at that time in many Scottish families who stinted themselves to get a son or daughter to the university.”
Initially Dickie had been so busy teaching that monitoring the quality of education had suffered, leading to a critical report by school inspectors in 1882; but gradually a staff of graduate teachers was built up and the situation improved. Even by the late 1870s, he had been to attract staff of the quality of Dr. John G. Kerr, who had been a Snell Exhibitioner, the scholarship which enabled a student of Glasgow University to study at Balliol College , Oxford . It was during Dickie's rectorship that John Boyd Orr and Alexander Fleming , perhaps the school's two most famous former pupils, attended. Dickie transformed Kilmarnock Academy into what was known in the late nineteenth century as a Higher Class school, allowing it to be recognized in 1908 as one of Scotland's secondary schools and eventually as one of its senior secondaries when that category was introduced in 1940. Just how successful he was in laying the foundation of an excellent school can be seen from a glance at the list of former pupils .