Public school (United Kingdom)

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The playing fields of Rugby School, where according to legend the game of rugby football was invented

In the United Kingdom, a public school is an older, exclusive and expensive fee-paying independent secondary school, located in England or Wales, which caters primarily for children aged between 13 and 18. Traditionally, public schools were all-male boarding schools, although most now allow day pupils, and many have turned either partially or fully co-educational.

Public schools emerged from charity schools established to educate poor scholars, the term "public" being used to indicate that 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,[1] in contrast to private schools which were run for the personal profit of the proprietors.[2]

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 (HMC). Separate preparatory schools (or "prep schools") for younger boys developed from the 1830s, which "prepared" pupils for entry to the senior schools, which began limiting entry to boys of at least 12 or 13 years of age.

Public schools have had a strong association with the ruling classes. Historically they educated the sons of the English upper and upper-middle classes. In particular, the sons of officers and senior administrators of the British Empire were educated in England while their parents were on overseas postings. In 2010, over half of Cabinet Ministers had been educated at public schools; by contrast, however, most prime ministers since 1964 were educated at state schools. In 2014, annual fees at Eton College were more than £33,000 for boarders,[3] although around 20% of pupils there receive financial support through a range of bursaries and scholarships.[4] However, fees at day schools in Greater London, such as Hampton School and University College School, were only around half that figure, whilst day fees at boarding schools across England, from Plymouth College to Dulwich College, Stamford School, and Durham School, were also considerably lower. A comprehensive compilation of the fees charged at each HMC school for the year 2014/2015 can be found on


A bird's eye view of Eton College by David Loggan, published in his Cantabrigia Illustrata of 1690


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. The need for professional trades in an increasingly secularised society required schools for the sons of the gentry that were independent from ecclesiastical authority and open to all. From the 16th century onward, boys' boarding schools were founded or endowed for public use.[5] Traditionally, most of these public schools were all boys and full boarding.

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.[6][7]

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 paper forced governors of the Perse School to keep it open and a court case in 1837 required corrections to the college's abuse of school's Trust.[8]

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').[9]

The Public Schools Act 1868 regulated and reformed these public schools, for which is provided the first legal definition, being 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]

Following the Clarendon Commission, the Taunton Commission was appointed to examine the remaining 782 endowed grammar schools, and produced recommendations to restructure their endowments that were included, in modified form, in the Endowed Schools Act 1869. In that year, the headmaster of Uppingham School wrote to 37 other 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 only 12 headmasters attended, but in the following year 34 did, including the Clarendon schools. The Headmasters' Conference (HMC, now the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference) has since grown steadily to over 200 schools.[13]

The Public Schools Yearbook was published for the first time in 1889, listing 30 schools, mostly boarding schools except for 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.[14]

1901 – 1959

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% of its pupils from state primary schools.[16] Members of the HMC accounted for 58 of the 178 direct grant schools, of which the vast majority were day schools.[17] On average, nearly half of their places were funded by the state.[18]

1960s – present

The 1960s were a time of considerable social change, and also of student activism. Civil unrest in France in May 1968, which started with student strikes, quickly escalated to the point that President Charles De Gaulle fled the country. In the UK students protested outside the US Embassy against the Vietnam War and staged sit-ins at the London School of Economics and elsewhere.[19] 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.[20][21] These actions were felt in British public schools where the new headmaster at Oundle School noted that "student protests and intellectual ferment were challenging the status quo".[22] These challenges coincided with the mid-1970s recession and moves by the Labour government to separate more clearly the independent and state sectors.[23]

Many boarding schools started admitting day pupils for the first time, and others abolished boarding completely.[24][25] Some started accepting girls in the sixth form, while others became fully co-educational.[26] The system of fagging, whereby younger pupils were required to act as personal servants to the most senior boys, was phased out during the 1970s and 1980s.[27] 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[28] (2000 in Scotland and 2003 in Northern Ireland).[29]

When the direct grant was abolished in 1975, the HMC schools within the scheme became fully independent.[23] At the same time, local authorities were ordered to cease funding places at independent schools, which accounted for over 25% of places at 56 schools, and over half at 22 of them.[30] In addition, between 1975 and 1983 various local authorities withdrew funding 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 at all of these schools, coinciding with the recession, put them under severe financial strain, and many became co-educational to survive.[23] The direct grant was partially revived between 1981 and 1997 in the Assisted Places Scheme, which provided support for 80,000 pupils attending private schools.[34]

More than half of HMC schools are now either partially or fully co-educational; of the Clarendon nine, two admit girls to the sixth form only,[35] two are fully co-educational (Rugby and Shewsbury) and five retain the full-boarding, boys-only tradition: Eton College, Sherborne School, Radley College, Winchester College and Harrow School. The newest public 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.

Psychological effects of boarding

There is a growing body of knowledge supporting the view that being sent away to boarding school at an early age can result in long-term psychological harm.[36][37][38][39][40] In 2008 it was announced that a committee of MPs was to investigate and look at the social and emotional impact of separating youngsters from their parents and the "possible dangers" of children being sent to boarding school at a young age.[41]

Public schools (especially boarding schools) have sometimes 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.[42] Evelyn Waugh observed in Decline and Fall (1928) that "anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison".[43] 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."[44]

Associations with the ruling class

In this 2009 photo, British Prime Minister David Cameron (left), Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne (centre) and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg (centre right) had all attended English public schools.

Up to World War II, 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 usually sent their sons back home to boarding schools for education as gentlemen, often for uninterrupted periods of a year or more at a time.

The 19th-century public school ethos promoted ideas of service to Crown and Empire, understood by the broader public in 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". 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[45]), and a public school tie and "old boy network" of former pupils could be useful in a career.

The English public school model influenced the 19th-century development of Scottish private schools, but a tradition of the gentry sharing primary education with their tenants kept Scotland comparatively 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" at its most pervasive continued well into the 1960s, reflected in contemporary popular fiction such as Len Deighton's The IPCRESS File, with its 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.[46]

As of 2015 the Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party (David Cameron: Eton) and Chancellor of the Exchequer (George Osborne: St Paul's) were both educated at Clarendon schools.[47] While the outgoing Conservative Prime Minister in 1964 had been educated at Eton College and the incoming Labour Prime Minister in 1997 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).[48][49]

See also


  1. There were 13 such schools,[31][32][33] but two were girls' schools, and thus ineligible for HMC membership.


  1. "public school, n. and adj.". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 19 March 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (subscription required)
  2. "private school n.". at private adj.1, adv., and n. Special uses 2. Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 19 March 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (subscription required)
  3. "Current Fees". Eton College. 2015. Retrieved 18 February 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Tatler Schools Guide 2012 - Eton College". The Tatler. 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Oxford English Dictionary, June 2010.
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  9. Shrosbree (1988), p. 12.
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  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. |access-date= requires |url= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Walford (1986), pp. 7–8.
  14. Honey (1977), pp. 250–251.
  15. Fleming (1944), p. 1.
  16. Donnison (1970), p. 49.
  17. Donnison (1970), p. 73.
  18. Donnison (1970), p. 72.
  19. "Sixties Britain, A social and cultural revolution?".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "Festival de Cannes: If..." Retrieved 6 April 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "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<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 Walford (1986), p. 149.
  24. Sampson (1971), p. 132.
  25. Walford (1986), p. 244.
  26. Walford (1986), pp. 141–144.
  27. Walford (1989), pp. 82–83.
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  29. "Corporal punishment in schools – United Kingdom".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  31. Dr Rhodes Boyson, Under-Secretary of State for Education (2 July 1979). "Schools (Reorganisation)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. col. 486W.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. Dr. Rhodes Boyson, Under-Secretary of State for Education (5 November 1980). "Schools (Status)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. col. 579W.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Mr Clement Freud, MP for Isle of Ely (29 January 1981). "Education (Cambridgeshire)". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. col. 1151.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  35. Walford (1986), pp. 141–142.
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  41. "Boarding school 'may harm children'". The Guardian. 11 May 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  42. Crawford, O.G.S. (1955). Said and Done: the Autobiography of an Archaeologist. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. pp. 26, 142–3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  43. Waugh, Evelyn (1937) [1928]. Decline and Fall. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 188.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Part 3, Chapter 4)
  44. "Jonathan Aitken quotes". Retrieved 5 March 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  45. Buddicom, Jacintha. Eric and Us. Finlay Publisher. 2006: p. 58
  46. "ISC Annual Census 2009". Independent Schools Council. 29 April 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  47. The Educational Backgrounds of Government Ministers in 2010 Sutton Trust, 2010
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