public school

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public schools. During the Middle Ages, the grammar school provided education for poor scholars intended for the church and for the sons of noblemen. This included such schools as Eton and Winchester. By the 18th cent. a number of ‘Great Schools’ had emerged, including Harrow, Rugby, Sherborne, and Canterbury.

Other changes during the early 19th cent. stimulated the demand for public schools. These included the spread of railways which enabled wealthy parents to send their children to board at far-off schools; the increase in political power of the middle classes after the 1832 Reform Act; and the rise of the professions. Reforms in public schools were introduced by heads such as Samuel Butler at Shrewsbury (1793–1836), and Dr Thomas Arnold at Rugby (1828–42), who were clerics. The school chapel became the focal point of life, discipline was enforced through prefects and team games emphasized. Proprietary schools, such as Marlborough (1843) and Haileybury (1864), often more progressive than the older public schools, were established to meet the demand from the middle classes. At first day schools, they later accepted boarders.

Criticism of some of the public schools, such as Westminster and Charterhouse, was so persistent that a royal commission was appointed in 1861, under Lord Clarendon, to investigate conditions in the nine large public schools Winchester, Eton, Westminster, Charterhouse, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, St Paul's, and Merchant Taylors'. Whilst broadly satisfied, the commissioners made a number of recommendations which were embodied in the Public Schools Act (1868). Governing bodies were reformed and schools such as Harrow developed a modern side. The Endowed Schools Bill (1869) threatened further intervention by the state into the affairs of schools, especially limiting the powers of headmasters. Edward Thring, headmaster of Uppingham, organized a meeting of thirteen heads at the school in December 1869 to oppose these contentious clauses. The meeting eventually became the annual headmasters' conference, membership of which denoted public school status.

Attempts were made in the 20th cent. to bridge the gap between public schools and the state-provided sector. The Fleming Report (1944) and the first report of the Public Schools Commission (1968) (Newsom) were impracticable. The second report (1970) (Donnison) was more positive, but the advent of a Conservative government avoided further threats. The term public school has now been superseded by independent school.

Peter Gordon

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pub·lic school • n. 1. (chiefly in North America) a school supported by public funds. 2. (in the UK) a private for-fee secondary school.

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public school, in the United States, a tax-supported elementary or high school open to anyone. In England the term was originally applied to grammar schools endowed for the use of the lay public; however, it has come to be used for the famous endowed preparatory schools that now charge tuition. The English public schools include Charterhouse, Cheltenham, Clifton, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Westminster, and Winchester. See school.

See also V. Ogilvie, The English Public School (1957).

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