A public school in England and Wales (but not Scotland) is a fee-charging endowed school originally for older boys that was "public" in the sense of being open to pupils irrespective of locality, denomination or paternal trade or profession. Although the term "public school" has been in use since at least the 18th century, its usage was formalised by the Public Schools Act 1868, which put into law most recommendations of the 1864 Clarendon Report. Nine prestigious schools were investigated by Clarendon, and seven subsequently reformed by the Act: Eton, Shrewsbury, Harrow, Winchester, Rugby, Westminster, and Charterhouse.
By the 1930s, the term "public school" applied to at least twenty-four schools,
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 2019, two thirds of Cabinet Ministers had been educated at such fee-charging schools, although a slim majority of cabinet ministers since 1964 were educated at state schools.
This gives me occasion to note the benefit of public schools to youth, beyond private teaching by parents or tutors
There is no single or absolute definition of a public school, and the use of the term has varied over time and according to context. The starting point was the contrast between a public school and private teaching.
Public schools are not funded from public taxes. The independent schools' representative body, the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS) defined public schools as long-established, student-selective, fee-charging independent secondary schools that cater primarily for children aged between 11 or 13 and 18, and whose head teacher is a member of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC).
The above definition of 1981 has resonance with that of Sydney Smith written in 1810 in The Edinburgh Review. "By a public school, we mean an endowed place of education of old standing, to which the sons of gentlemen resort in considerable numbers, and where they continue to reside, from eight or nine, to eighteen years of age. We do not give this as a definition which would have satisfied Porphyry or Duns-Scotus, but as one sufficiently accurate for our purpose. The characteristic features of these schools are, their antiquity, the numbers, and the ages of the young people who are educated at them ...".
In November 1965, the UK Cabinet considered the definition of a public school for the purpose of the Public Schools Commission set up that year. It started with the 1944 Fleming Committee definition of Public Schools, which consisted of schools which were members of the then Headmasters' Conference or the Girls' Schools Association. At that time, there were 276 such independent schools, which the 1965 Public Schools Commission took in scope of its work and also considered 22 maintained and 152 direct grant grammar schools.
In 2020, using the 1981 ISIS definition or the 1944 Fleming Committee definition, there are 296 independent (and mainly boys') secondary schools belonging to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, and 230 independent girls' secondary schools belonging to the Girls' Schools Association.
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, including Oswestry School, Bedales and University College School.
Public schools emerged from charity schools established to educate poor scholars—public 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, in contrast to private schools which were run for the personal profit of the proprietors. The origins of schools in the UK were primarily religious, although in 1640 the 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.
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. Historically, most of these public schools were all-boys and full boarding. Some 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).
In 1801 William Vincent, headmaster of Westminster published A Defence of Public Education. It contains the text "...comprize under the expression of Public Schools? Are we to understand only Winchester, Eton and Westminster? or are we to extend our notion, as we ought to do, to the other three great schools in the Metropolis;[a] to Harrow, Rugby, Manchester, Wakefield and many more of equal magnitude in the North?"
In 1816 Rudolph Ackerman published a book which used the term "History of the Public Schools" of what he described as the "principal schools of England", entitled The History of the Colleges of Winchester, Eton, and Westminster; with the Charter-House, the Schools of St. Paul's, Merchant Taylors, Harrow, and Rugby, and the Free-School of Christ's Hospital.
In 1818 Nicholas Carlisle published a two volume survey entitled A Concise Description of the Endowed Grammar Schools in England and Wales. The survey was conducted by means of a questionnaire sent to the schools. The description of 475 schools range from one or two paragraphs to many pages of detail. Included in the survey are the renowned nine schools which forty three years later became the subject of the 1861 Clarendon Commission.
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.
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 Merchant Taylors').
The Public Schools Act 1868 subsequently regulated and reformed the seven boarding schools investigated by Clarendon, and in summary established and granted autonomy to new governing bodies for the seven schools and as part of that, released them from previous obligations under their founding charters to educate "boys on the Foundation" ie scholarship boys who paid nominal or no fees. The Act gave the seven schools independence from direct jurisdiction or responsibility of the Crown, the established church, or the government. Henceforth each of these schools was to be managed by a board of governors. 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.
The Taunton Commission was appointed in 1864 to examine the remaining 782 endowed grammar schools, and in 1868 produced recommendations to restructure their endowments; these recommendations were included, in modified form, in the Endowed Schools Act 1869. In that year Edward Thring, headmaster of Uppingham School, wrote to 37 of his fellow headmasters of what he considered the leading boys' schools, not covered by the Public Schools Act of 1868, inviting them to meet annually to address the threat posed by the Endowed Schools Act of 1869. In the first year 12 headmasters attended; the following year 34 attended, including heads from the Clarendon schools. The Headmasters' Conference (HMC), now the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, has grown steadily and by 2020 had 296 British and Irish schools as members.
Many new schools were established in the mid-part of the nineteenth century including day schools such as University College School (1830), the City of London School (1837) and Liverpool College (1840). New boarding schools included Cheltenham (1841), Marlborough (1843), Rossall (1844), Radley (1847), Lancing (1848), Hurstpierpoint (1849), Bradfield (1850), Wellington (1852), Epsom (1855), Ardingly (1858), Clifton (1862), Malvern (1862), Haileybury (1862), Cranleigh (1863) and Framlingham (1864).
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 were added in later editions. The 1902 edition included all schools whose principals qualified for membership of the Headmasters' Conference.
In 1893 Edward Arnold published a book entitled Great Public Schools with a chapter on each of Eton, Harrow, Charterhouse, Cheltenham, Rugby, Clifton, Westminster, Marlborough, Haileybury, and Winchester.
The Bryce Report of 1895 (i.e. Report of the Royal Commission on Secondary Education) described the schools reformed by the 1868 Act as the "seven 'great public schools'".
There was a further expansion in public school education in the interwar years. New schools such as Rendcomb (1920), Stowe (1923), Canford (1923), Bryanston (1928) and Millfield (1935) were established.
In 1942 the then President of the Board of Education Rab Butler appointed a Committee on Public Schools under the leadership of Lord Fleming. The committee was tasked to 'consider means whereby the association between the Public Schools and the general educational system of the country could be developed and extended'. The Fleming Report (1944) entitled The Public Schools and the General Education System defined a public school as a member of the Governing Bodies Association or the Headmasters' Conference. The Fleming Committee recommended that one-quarter of the places at the public schools should be assigned to a national bursary scheme for children who would benefit from boarding. A key advocate was the post-war Minister of Education Ellen Wilkinson, but the proposed national bursary scheme never got into legislation in that post-war age of severe budget constraints. The Conservative government elected in 1951 did not adopt the proposal. It failed because it was not a high priority for either party, money was tight, there was wavering support from both public schools and local education authorities, and no consensus was reached on how to select the pupils to participate.
Based on the recommendations of the Fleming Report, the Education Act 1944 "the Butler Act" did however establish an enhanced status for endowed grammar schools receiving a grant from central government. The direct grant grammar schools would henceforth receive partial state funding (a "direct grant") in return for taking between 25 and 50 percent of its pupils from state primary schools. Other grammar schools were funded by Local Education Authorities.
The Labour government in 1965 made major changes to the organisation of maintained schools, directing local authorities to phase out selection at eleven. It also fulfilled its pledge to examine the role of public schools, setting up a Royal commission "to advise on the best way of integrating the public schools with the State system". The commission used a wider definition than that of the Fleming Committee. The Public Schools Commission produced two reports: the Newsom Report of 1968 entitled The Public Schools Commission: First Report covering boarding schools and the Donnison Report of 1970 entitled The Public Schools Commission: Second Report covering day schools, including also direct grant and maintained grammar schools.
|Independent schools within the HMC, GBA or GSA||276||95,500||106||28||83||59|
|Direct grant maintained schools within the HMC (out of the total 179 grant maintained schools)
In addition there were 27 Direct Grant schools which are not within the HMC.
|Maintained schools within the HMC||22|
|State secondary schools (maintained)||6000|
|Source: HMG |
Late 20th century
The 1968 film if...., which satirised the worst elements of English public school life, culminating in scenes of armed insurrection, won the Palme d'Or at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. The social changes of the 1960s were felt in the public schools; the new headmaster at Oundle School noted that "student protests and intellectual ferment were challenging the status quo". These challenges later coincided with the mid-1970s recession and moves by the Labour government to separate the independent and state sectors.
The direct grant scheme was abolished in 1975 and the HMC schools within the scheme became fully independent. 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. Between 1975 and 1983 funding was withdrawn from 11 voluntary-aided grammar schools, which became independent schools and full members of the HMC.[b] 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. A direct grant was partially revived between 1981 and 1997 with the Assisted Places Scheme, providing support for 80,000 pupils attending schools outside of the state sector.
Many boarding schools started to admit day pupils for the first time, and others abolished boarding completely. Some started accepting girls in the sixth form, while others became fully co-educational. Of the seven schools reformed by the 1868 Public Schools Act all continue to maintain substantial or full boarding but some are now mixed and also accept day pupils.
Corporal punishment, was abolished in state schools in 1986, and had been abandoned in most public schools by the time it was formally banned in independent schools in 1999 in England and Wales, (2000 in Scotland and 2003 in Northern Ireland). 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.
More than half of HMC schools are now either partially or fully co-educational. 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 and Merchant Taylors') and three retain the full-boarding, boys-only tradition (Eton, Harrow and Winchester).
In September 2005 the UK Office of Fair Trading (OFT) found that 50 prominent public schools were in breach of the Competition Act 1998 through their exchange of details of planned fee increases over three academic years 2001–02, 2002–03 and 2003–04. The Independent Schools Council claimed that the investigation had been "a scandalous waste of public money".
Associations with the ruling class
Former Harrow pupil Stanley Baldwin wrote that when he first became Prime Minister in 1923, 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". Until 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,[clarification needed] 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 uninterrupted periods of a year or more. The 19th-century public school ethos promoted ideas of service to Crown and Empire, exemplified in familiar tropes such as "Play up! Play up! And play the game!" from Henry Newbolt's poem Vitaï Lampada and "the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton", the latter popularly attributed to the Duke of 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,) and a public school tie and an "old boy network" of former pupils were useful in advancing a career. The English public school model influenced the 19th-century development of Scottish elite schools, but a tradition of the gentry sharing their primary education with their tenants kept Scotland more egalitarian.
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. By 2009 typical fees were up to £30,000 per annum for boarders. As of 2019, 20 Prime Ministers have attended Eton, seven Harrow, and six Westminster. Since 2020, both the Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Eton) and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak (Winchester) had been educated at Clarendon public schools.
Conservative former cabinet minister Iain Macleod wrote in 1964 in "The Tory Leadership" that an conspiracy by an Etonian "magic circle" had made Alec Douglas-Home prime minister. The assertion was so powerful that until Cameron, being an Etonian was a disadvantage to becoming a party leader, as Douglas Hurd learned in the 1990 Conservative Party leadership election. While Home had been educated at Eton and the incoming Labour Prime Minister in 1997 (Tony Blair) at Fettes College, all six British Prime Ministers in office between 1964 and 1997 and from 2007 to 2010 were educated at state schools (Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, and John Major at grammar schools, and James Callaghan and Gordon Brown at other state secondary schools). Theresa May's secondary school education also was primarily in the state sector.
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 schools. It also found that 10 elite fee-charging schools (specifically Eton, Winchester, Charterhouse, Rugby, Westminster, Marlborough, Dulwich, Harrow, St Paul's, and Wellington) produced 12% of the leading high-flyers examined in the study. 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 educated at fee-charging schools.
Minor public schools
Dorothy L. Sayers in her 1933 novel Murder Must Advertise had her protagonist, the aristocrat Lord Peter Wimsey postulate that there are but three 'great' public schools (with the incipient corollary that all others are 'minor'), as follows:-
"Well, you and Mr. Bredon have had college educations, so you know all about it. What schools do you call public schools?" "Eton," said Mr. Bredon, promptly, "--and Harrow," he added, magnanimously, for he was an Eton man… "And I've heard," Bredon went on, "that there's a decentish sort of place at Winchester, if you're not too particular."
This section possibly contains original research. (May 2021)
While the definition is often disputed, historical precedents dictate that only the nine Clarendon schools are able to be defined as "major" on account of their historic status within British society, despite the term being rarely used in modern times. During the 19th century, a substantial increase in demand for high quality education created many new boarding schools, which on account of their modernity and limited influence, garnered "minor" status. Today, while the hierarchical distinction is less commonly used, only the "Great Nine" public schools of England – Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Charterhouse, Merchant Taylors', Westminster, Shrewsbury, Rugby and St Paul's – are referred to as "major" on account of this historical association. Schools outside this group are referred to as "minor" , irrespective of contemporary influence.
Comparison to prisons
Public 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. 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". 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."
Literature and media
Rugby School inspired a whole new genre of literature, i.e. the school story. Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's School Days, published in 1857 was set there. There were however as many as 90 earlier novels set in British boarding schools, taking as an example just girls' school stories, published between Sarah Fielding's 1749 The Governess, or The Little Female Academy and the seminal 1857 Tom Brown's School Days. Such stories were set in a variety of institutions including private boarding and prep schools as well as public schools. Tom Brown's School Days' influence on the genre of British school novels includes the fictional boarding schools of Talbot Baines Reed's St Dominic's, Rudyard Kipling's Stalky & Co. at "the College",[c] Frank Richards' Billy Bunter at Greyfriars School, James Hilton's Mr Chips at Brookfield,[d] Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings at Linbury Court,[e] P. G. Wodehouse's St. Austin's and girls' schools Malory Towers and St. Trinian's. It also influenced 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.
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".
Tom Brown's School Days has been the subject of five cinematic and television productions. Goodbye Mr. Chips has been the subject of three cinematic productions. Ronald Searle's girls' school St Trinian's has featured in seven cinematic productions. The 1942 film A Yank at Eton is a comedy-drama where the protagonist eventually overcomes outdated manners and attitudes. The 1947 stage play and 1950 comedy film The Happiest Days of Your Life, based at fictional minor public school Nutbourne College, were commercial and critical successes. A BBC TV series Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School ran from 1952 to 1961. The 1968 film if...., a satire of public school life, received major critical acclaim.
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- Public Schools Club
- Private school
- List of independent schools in the United Kingdom
- Toffs and Toughs photograph
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