Public school (United Kingdom)

A public school in England and Wales traditionally refers to one of seven private schools given independence from direct jurisdiction by the Public Schools Act 1868: Charterhouse, Eton College, Harrow School, Rugby School, Shrewsbury School, Westminster School, and Winchester College. These were all-male boarding schools, but many now accept day pupils as well as boarders. By the 1930s the 'public school' label applied to twenty-four schools.[1] Today the term is more generally used to refer to any fee-paying private school.

Public schools have had a strong association with the ruling classes. Historically, the sons of officers and senior administrators of the British Empire were educated in England while their fathers were on overseas postings. In 2010, over half of Cabinet Ministers had been educated at public schools, although most prime ministers since 1964 were educated at state schools.

The independent schools trade body, the Independent Schools Information Service, prefers to define public schools as a long-established, student-selective, fee-charging independent secondary school that caters primarily for children aged between 11 or 13 and 18, and whose head teacher is a member of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC).[2] The 'public' name refers to the schools' origins as schools open to any public citizen who could afford to pay the fees; they are not funded from public taxes. It is usually applied to describe the 215 independent (and mainly boys') secondary schools belonging to the HMC, although it can also be used to describe the 230 girls' senior schools belonging to the Girls' Schools Association.[2]


Public schools emerged from charity schools established to educate poor scholarspublic because access to them was not restricted on the basis of religion, occupation, or home location, and that they were subject to public management or control,[3] in contrast to private schools which were run for the personal profit of the proprietors.[4] The origins of schools in the UK were primarily religious until 1640, when House of Commons invited Comenius to England to establish and participate in an agency for the promotion of learning. It was intended that by-products of this would be the publication of 'universal' books and the setting up of schools for boys and girls.[5]

Soon after the Clarendon Commission reported in 1864, the Public Schools Act 1868 gave the following seven schools independence from direct jurisdiction or responsibility of the Crown, the established church, or the government: Charterhouse, Eton College, Harrow School, Rugby School, Shrewsbury School, Westminster School, and Winchester College. Henceforth each of these schools was to be managed by a board of governors. The following year, the headmaster of Uppingham School invited sixty to seventy of his fellow headmasters to form what became the Headmasters' Conference – later the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. Separate preparatory (or "prep") schools developed from the 1830s, which "prepared" younger boys for entry to the senior schools; as a result the latter began limiting entry to boys who had reached 12 or 13 years of age.

Until the late medieval period most schools were controlled by the church and had specific entrance criteria; others were restricted to the sons of members of guilds, trades or livery companies. From the 16th century onward, boys' boarding schools were founded or endowed for public use.[6] Traditionally, most of these public schools were all-boys and full boarding. Some independent schools are particularly old, such as The King's School, Canterbury (founded 597), The King's School, Rochester (founded 604), St Peter's School, York (founded c. 627), Sherborne School (founded c. 710, refounded 1550 by Edward VI), Warwick School (c. 914), The King's School, Ely (c. 970) and St Albans School (948).

Separate preparatory schools (or "prep schools") for younger boys developed from the 1830s, with entry to the senior schools becoming limited to boys of at least 12 or 13 years old. The first of these was Windlesham House School, established with support from Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School.[7][8]

Many of the schools, including Rugby School, Harrow School and the Perse School fell into decline during the 18th century and nearly closed in the early 19th century. Protests in the local newspaper forced governors of the Perse School to keep it open, and a court case in 1837 required reform of the abuse of the school's trust.[9]

Victorian period

A Royal Commission, the Clarendon Commission (1861–1864), investigated nine of the more established schools, including seven boarding schools (Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester) and two day schools (St Paul's and the Merchant Taylors').[1]

The Public Schools Act 1868 regulated and reformed these "public schools", for which it provided the first legal definition: schools which were open to the paying public from anywhere in the country, as opposed to, for example, a local school only open to local residents, or a religious school open only to members of a certain church.[10] St Paul's School and the Merchant Taylors' School claimed successfully that their constitutions made them "private" schools, and were excluded from the requirements of this legislation.[11] In 1887 the Divisional Court and the Court of Appeal determined that the City of London School was a public school.[12]

The Taunton Commission was then appointed to examine the remaining 782 endowed grammar schools, and produced recommendations to restructure their endowments; these recommendations were included, in modified form, in the Endowed Schools Act 1869. Edward Thring wrote to 37 headmasters of what he considered leading boys' schools not covered by the Public Schools Act, inviting them to meet annually to address the threat posed by the Endowed Schools Act. In the first year 12 headmasters attended, in the following year 34 attended, including headteachers from the Clarendon schools. The Headmasters' Conference (HMC, now the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference) has grown steadily to include over 200 schools.[13]

The Public Schools Yearbook was published for the first time in 1889, listing 30 schools, mostly boarding schools. The day school exceptions were St Paul's School and Merchant Taylors' School. Some academically successful grammar schools have been added in later editions. The 1902 edition included all schools whose principals qualified for membership of the Headmasters' Conference.[14]

Twentieth century

The Fleming Report (1944) defined a public school as a member of the Governing Bodies Association or the Headmasters' Conference.[15] Based on the recommendations of this report, the Education Act 1944 offered a new status to endowed grammar schools receiving a grant from central government. The direct grant grammar school would receive partial state funding in return for taking between 25 and 50 percent of its pupils from state primary schools.[16]

The Fleming Committee recommended that one-quarter of the places at public schools should be assigned to a national bursary scheme for children who would benefit from boarding. The key advocate was Ellen Wilkinson, but it got off to a slow start in an age of severe budget constraints. The Conservative Government elected in 1951 did not expand the programme. It failed because it was not a high priority for either party, money was tight, there was wavering support from independent boarding schools and local education authorities, and no consensus was reached on how to select the pupils to participate.[17]

The Labour government in 1965 made major changes to the organisation of maintained schools, directing local authorities to phase out selection at eleven. It fulfilled its pledge to examine the role of Public Schools, setting up a commission, using a more robust definition than was provided by the Fleming Committee. [18]

School and pupil numbers presented to Cabinet November 1965

The direct grant scheme was abolished in 1975 and the HMC schools within the scheme became fully independent.[19] Local authorities were ordered to cease funding places at independent schools. This accounted for over quarter of places at 56 schools, and over half the places at 22 schools.[20] Between 1975 and 1983 funding was withdrawn from 11 voluntary-aided grammar schools, which became independent schools and full members of the HMC.[lower-alpha 1] The loss of state-funded places coinciding with the recession, put them under severe financial strain, and many became co-educational in order to survive.[19] A direct grant was partially revived between 1981 and 1997 with the Assisted Places Scheme, providing support for 80,000 pupils attending private and independent schools.[24]

Many boarding schools started to admit day pupils for the first time, and others abolished boarding completely.[25][26] Some started accepting girls in the sixth form, while others became fully co-educational.[27]

The 1968 film if...., which satirised the worst elements of English public school life, and culminated in scenes of armed insurrection, won the Palme d'Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival.[28][29] These actions were felt in British public schools; the new headmaster at Oundle School noted that "student protests and intellectual ferment were challenging the status quo".[30] These challenges coincided with the mid-1970s recession and moves by the Labour government to separate more clearly the independent and state sectors.[19]

The system of fagging, whereby younger pupils were required to act to some extent as personal servants to the most senior boys, was phased out during the 1970s and 1980s.[31] Corporal punishment, which was outlawed in state schools in 1986, had been abandoned in most public schools by the time it was formally banned in independent schools in 1999 for England and Wales[32] (2000 in Scotland and 2003 in Northern Ireland).[33]

More than half of HMC schools are now either partially or fully co-educational.[34] Of the Clarendon nine, two are fully co-educational (Rugby and Shrewsbury), two admit girls to the sixth form only (Charterhouse and Westminster), two remain as boys-only day schools (St Paul's[35] and Merchant Taylors') and three retain the full-boarding, boys-only tradition (Eton, Harrow and Winchester). The newest independent school to join the HMC is Yarm School, which was founded in 1978.

The majority of public schools are affiliated with, or were established by, a Christian denomination, principally the Church of England, but in some cases the Roman Catholic and Methodist churches; or else identify themselves as "non-denominational Christian". A small number are inherently secular, most notably Oswestry School.

Associations with the ruling class

Harrow graduate Stanley Baldwin wrote that when he became Prime Minister before World War II, he wanted to have six Harrovians in his government. "To make a cabinet is like making a jig-saw puzzle fit, and I managed to make my six fit by keeping the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer for myself".[36] Up to the war, the role of public schools in preparing pupils for the gentlemanly elite meant that such education, particularly in its classical focus and social mannerism, became a mark of the ruling class.

For three hundred years, the officers and senior administrators of the British Empire sent their sons back home to boarding schools for education as gentlemen. This was often for long uninterrupted periods of a year or more. The 19th-century public school ethos promoted ideas of service to Crown and Empire, familiar sentiments such as "it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game" and "the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton". The latter sometimes but probably wrongly attributed to Wellington. Many ex-pupils, like those from other schools, had, and still have, a nostalgic affection for their old schools (George Orwell remembered being "interested and happy" at Eton,[37]) and a public school tie and "old boy network" of former pupils were useful in advancing a career. The English public school model influenced the 19th-century development of Scottish private schools, but a tradition of the gentry sharing their primary education with their tenants kept Scotland more egalitarian.[38][39]

Acceptance of social elitism was reduced by the two world wars, but despite portrayals of the products of public schools as "silly asses" and "toffs", the old system continued well into the 1960s. This was reflected in contemporary popular fiction such as Len Deighton's The IPCRESS File, which had a sub-text of supposed tension between the grammar school educated protagonist and the public school background of his more senior but inept colleague.

Postwar social change has, however, gradually been reflected across Britain's educational system, while at the same time fears of problems with state education have pushed some parents, who can afford the fees or whose pupils qualify for bursaries or scholarships, towards public schools and other schools in the independent sector. In 2009 typical fees were up to £30,000 per annum for boarders.[40] 19 Prime Ministers have attended Eton, seven Harrow, and six Westminster. Between 2010 and 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron (Eton) and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (St Paul's) had both been educated at Clarendon schools.[41]

However, while the outgoing Conservative Prime Minister in 1964 (Douglas-Home) had been educated at Eton College and the incoming Labour Prime Minister in 1997 (Blair) had been at Fettes College, all six British Prime Ministers in office between 1964 and 1997 and 2007 to 2010 were educated at state schools (Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, and Major at grammar schools and Callaghan and Brown at other state secondary schools).[42][43] Theresa May's secondary school education also was primarily in the state sector, but current Prime Minister Boris Johnson attended Eton.

While members of the aristocracy and landed gentry no longer dominate independent schools, studies have shown that such schools still retain a degree of influence over the country's professional and social elite despite educating less than 10% of the population. A 2012 study published by the Sutton Trust noted that 44% of the 7,637 individuals examined whose names appeared in the birthday lists of The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent or The Independent on Sunday during 2011 – across all sectors, including politics, business, the arts and the armed forces – were educated at independent or private schools.[44] It also found that 10 elite fee-paying schools (specifically Eton, Winchester, Charterhouse, Rugby, Westminster, Marlborough, Dulwich, Harrow, St Paul's, Wellington[44]) produced 12% of the leading high-flyers examined in the study.[45] The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission came to a similar conclusion in a 2014 study of the professions: 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior armed forces officers, 55% of Whitehall permanent secretaries and 50% of members of the House of Lords had been privately educated.[46]

Public schools (especially boarding schools) have been light-heartedly compared by their pupils or ex-pupils to prisons. O. G. S. Crawford stated that he had been "far less unhappy" when incarcerated in Holzminden prisoner-of-war camp during the First World War than he had previously been at his public school, Marlborough College.[47] Evelyn Waugh observed in his satirical novel Decline and Fall (1928) that "anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison".[48] Former Cabinet Minister Jonathan Aitken, sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment for perjury in 1999, commented in an interview: "As far as the physical miseries go, I am sure I will cope. I lived at Eton in the 1950s and I know all about life in uncomfortable quarters."[49]

Minor public schools

The term minor public school is subjective. While the nine Clarendon schools are clearly major, between the wars there were a continuum of private and independent boarding schools, most of which were considered 'minor'.

Literature and media

Rugby inspired a whole new genre of literature: the school story genre. Tom Brown's School Days, a book published in 1857 written by Thomas Hughes was set in Rugby School. There were as many as 90 stories set in British boarding schools published between Sarah Fielding's The Governess, or The Little Female Academy in 1749 and 1857,[50] Tom Brown's School Days was responsible for bringing the school story genre to much wider attention. This include private and independent boarding schools as well as public schools though. Tom Brown's School Days' influence on the genre of British school novels includes the fictional independent boarding schools of Billy Bunter's Greyfriars School, Mr Chips' Brookfield,[lower-alpha 2] and St. Trinian's. It also directly inspired J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, set at the fictional boarding school Hogwarts. The series' first novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone has many direct parallels in structure and theme to Tom Brown's School Days.[51]

Alan Bennett, used the metaphor of an end of term revue at a minor public school to contrast the events of the twentieth century with that of public school life, in his 1968 play Forty Years On. The title alludes to the Harrow school song, Forty Years On.[52]

See also


  1. There were 13 such schools,[21][22][23] but two were girls' schools, and thus ineligible for HMC membership.
  2. Reputed to be The Leys School


  1. Shrosbree (1988), p. 12.
  2. Independent Schools: The Facts, Independent Schools Information Service, 1981.
  3. "public school, n. and adj.". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 19 March 2014. (subscription required)
  4. "private school n.". at private adj.1, adv., and n. Special uses 2. Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 19 March 2014. (subscription required)
  5. "Education in England – Chapter 1".
  6. Oxford English Dictionary, June 2010.
  7. "The History of Windlesham House School" (PDF). Windlesham House School.
  8. "History of British Preparatory School".
  9. "History – Almost 400 years old". The Perse School.
  10. "Education in England: a brief history". Education in England.
  11. Shrosbree (1988), p. 118.
  12. Blake v The Mayor and Citizens of the City of London [1887] L.R. 19 Q.B.D. 79.
  13. Walford (1986), pp. 7–8.
  14. Honey (1977), pp. 250–251.
  15. Fleming (1944), p. 1.
  16. Donnison (1970), p. 49.
  17. Nicholas Hillman, "Public schools and the Fleming report of 1944: shunting the first-class carriage on to an immense siding?." History of Education 41#2 (2012): 235–255.
  18. Public Schools: Memorandum by the Sectary of State for Education and Science (PDF), 19 November 1965, p. 1
  19. Walford (1986), p. 149.
  20. Donnison (1970), pp. 81, 91.
  21. Dr Rhodes Boyson, Under-Secretary of State for Education (2 July 1979). "Schools (Reorganisation)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. col. 486W.
  22. Dr. Rhodes Boyson, Under-Secretary of State for Education (5 November 1980). "Schools (Status)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. col. 579W.
  23. Mr Clement Freud, MP for Isle of Ely (29 January 1981). "Education (Cambridgeshire)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. col. 1151.
  24. "The main elements of the Queen's Speech on May 14, 1997 upon the two Education Bills". BBC Politics 1997. Archived from the original on 18 June 2011. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
  25. Sampson (1971), p. 132.
  26. Walford (1986), p. 244.
  27. Walford (1986), pp. 141–144.
  28. "Festival de Cannes: If..." Retrieved 6 April 2009.
  29. "If... (1968) film review". BBC. 26 February 2002. if... "taps into the revolutionary spirit of the late 60s. Each frame burns with an anger that can only be satisfied by imagining the apocalyptic overthrow of everything that middle class Britain holds dear
  30. "Headmaster Dr Barry Trapnell CBE (1924–2012)". Oundle School. Archived from the original on 5 May 2013. Retrieved 27 April 2013.
  31. Walford (1989), pp. 82–83.
  32. "Corporal punishment banned for all". BBC News.
  33. "Corporal punishment in schools – United Kingdom".
  34. Walford (1986), pp. 141–142.
  35. St Paul's admits a small number of boarders.
  36. Gunther, John (1940). Inside Europe. New York: Harper & Brothers. p. 286.
  37. Buddicom, Jacintha. Eric and Us. Finlay Publisher. 2006: p. 58
  38. P.J. Cain; A. G. Hopkins (2016). British Imperialism: 1688–2015. Routledge. p. 724.
  39. Peter W. Cookson and Caroline H. Persell, "English and American residential secondary schools: A comparative study of the reproduction of social elites." Comparative Education Review 29#3 (1985): 283–298. in JSTOR
  40. "ISC Annual Census 2009". Independent Schools Council. 29 April 2009. Archived from the original on 6 December 2009.
  41. The Educational Backgrounds of Government Ministers in 2010 Sutton Trust, 2010.
  42. "How politics got 'posh' again". The Daily Telegraph. 23 January 2011. Retrieved 9 May 2012.
  43. "Resignations fuel fears of posh-boy politics". The New Zealand Herald. 26 January 2011. Retrieved 9 May 2012.
  44. "The Educational Backgrounds of the Nation's Leading People" (PDF). Sutton Trust. November 2012.
  45. "Public schools retain grip on Britain's elite". The Daily Telegraph. 20 November 2012.
  46. Arnett, George (28 August 2014). "Elitism in Britain – breakdown by profession". The Guardian.
  47. Crawford, O.G.S. (1955). Said and Done: the Autobiography of an Archaeologist. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. pp. 26, 142–3.
  48. Waugh, Evelyn (1937) [1928]. Decline and Fall. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 188. (Part 3, Chapter 4)
  49. "Jonathan Aitken quotes". Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  50. Gosling, Juliet (1998). "5". Virtual Worlds of Girls. University of Kent at Canterbury.
  51. Steege, David K. "Harry Potter, Tom Brown, and the British School Story". The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon: 141–156.
  52. Spencer, Charles (18 May 2004). "School's back with Bennett at his best". The Telegraph. Retrieved 24 May 2019.

Further reading

Primary sources

  1. Archive Administrator (9 March 2010). "OFT issues statement of objections against 50 independent schools". The Office of Fair Trading. Retrieved 26 May 2019.
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