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Following the Reformation in Scotland in 1560 its leader, John Knox, declared his wish to see a school in every parish in the land. His vision was not fulfilled in the Highlands until after the Education Act of 1696. A shortage of teachers was a problem and monitoring their quality across scattered rural populations also proved difficult.

Provision before 1872
After the Battle of Culloden (1746) the Highlands and Islands came under direct government control. Formal education from then on was to be conducted in English, even in Gaelic-speaking areas. There were few school books and none in Gaelic. Additional schools in rural areas were established by charitable societies and by the Free Church after 1843.

Elementary (primary) education after the 1872 Act
The 1872 Education (Scotland) Act brought in compulsory education for all children between 5 and 13 although fees still had to be paid until 1890. Teacher shortages continued and problems arose in areas where teachers who spoke no Gaelic attempted to teach children who had no English. Pupil-teachers would later be able to qualify after attending Teacher Training College.

Local school boards made sure sufficient schools were built and that children attended them. After 1918 this became a county responsibility. State control increased the number of school inspectors after 1872. Medical and dental inspections were introduced after 1908, though reaching remote schools proved difficult.

Secondary education
The school leaving age was raised to 14 in 1883. Only larger towns offered secondary education at first and fees had to be paid. After 1918 traveling expenses or a lodging allowance became available for able pupils from remote areas requiring secondary education. Pupils could also win a bursary. Hostels were attached to the schools at Portree, Dingwall, Inverness, Golspie, Dornoch and Fort William.

By 1945 the Education Act raised the school leaving age to 15. Secondary education became freely available for all children, and the leaving age rose to 16 in 1972.

Special needs education
A school for children with learning difficulties was established in Inverness in 1926, with another in Ross-shire in 1955.

Gaelic provision
Only in the late 1980s did Gaelic-medium primary education become available in certain schools. Gaelic-medium in secondary education followed later. Modern communications are now helping to widen the provision of Gaelic, particularly through the work of the University of the Highlands and Islands (now called the UHI Millennium Institute.) In its Skye campus, Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the language used is Gaelic.

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