Public Schools: Britain

The British public school can be characterized by institutional independence, an emphasis on the ideal of a "liberal" curriculum, and a fee-paying student body that frequently boards at the school. Although there are no formal criteria governing an institution's status as a public school in Britain, a general qualification is representation in the Headmasters' Conference, the coalition founded in 1869 under the stewardship of Edward Thring of Uppingham. However, the increasing membership of this organization, which rose from an initial thirty-seven schools to stabilize around two hundred by 1937, masks the predominance of a much smaller group of prestigious institutions that make up the core of the public school system. This elite group is defined either as the "Great Nine" (Winchester [founded in 1382], Eton [1440], St. Paul's [1509], Shrewsbury [1552], Westminster [originally conceived in 1179 and refounded in 1560], Merchant Taylors' [1561], Rugby [1567], Harrow [1572], and Charter-house [1611]) or the wider coterie of around sixty schools that acknowledged each other's comparable status through regular SPORTS meetings. Although the earliest of the public schools were originally intended to provide clerical training for the poor, the increasing demands for fees meant that the schools quickly became the sole preserve of the wealthy and attendance became a rite of passage for the elite of British society. Although boarding is not unknown in continental Europe, in their social prestige, organizational culture, and emphasis on the development of gentlemanly qualities, the public schools are unique to Great Britain.

The coalescence of long-established institutions, endowed GRAMMAR SCHOOLS, and a significant number of new Victorian schools into a uniform system with a common ethos was a product of the later nineteenth century. The eighteenth and early nineteenth century had seen public schools accused of brutality, inefficiency, and corruption, both financial and moral. A series of high profile student rebellions, particularly during the period of the French Revolutionary, had further tarnished the reputation of the established schools. However, under the influence of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby from 1828 to 1842, the public schools were recast as agents of moral and spiritual development and their role as the cultivators of Christian gentlemen was affirmed. Although schools guarded their individual traditions and idiosyncrasies, those institutional features set in place by Arnold and his imitators: pupil prefectures, the house system, organized games, the cult of the amateur, and a renewed sense of importance vested in the study of the classics, had become typical by the end of the nineteenth century.

Children's life at public school was shaped by the schools' preoccupation with the formation of their "character." Although Arnold had emphasized the achievement of manliness through waging an unending war against sin, from the later Victorian period this evangelical conception had given way to an emphasis on the secular virtues of determination, self-control, and a sense of duty. For the pupils this translated into a cult of athleticism and the celebration of games as the mainspring of those qualities of fair play, unselfishness, and esprit de corps deemed the foundation of gentlemanly conduct. In the classroom, study was similarly geared toward the cultivation of moral and behavioral attributes fitting for the social elite rather than scholarship for its own sake. Much of the pressure exerted on the late Victorian public school to expand its curriculum beyond the dominant core of the classics was based on a subjects' perceived capacity to aid the process of character formation. Stern discipline, reinforced by the generous use of corporal punishment, the devolving of disciplinary power onto prefects, and the practice of fagging, whereby younger pupils were required to perform services for older boys, were justified in these terms: that they taught boys those habits of obedience, self-command, and authority necessary for a future role in public life and the administration of empire.

For some, these conventions resulted in unhappy experiences in which floggings and bullying exacerbated the already harsh conditions of the schools. Although to criticize one's school was considered dishonorable and "bad form," accounts of the hardships engendered by the public school regime are not hard to find. In the early 1800s, in an Eton governed by the formidable Dr. Keate, famed for flogging eighty pupils in one session, the poet Shelley was a victim of ferocious bullying, partly occasioned by his refusal to submit to the fagging system. Twenty years later, the English novelist Anthony Trollope might reasonably have expected to escape the severity of prefect discipline at Winchester after his elder brother Tom was elected his "tutor." Instead, as his autobiography recalls, he was daily thrashed with a stick. Nevertheless, for others, the Old School was an object of almost fanatical loyalty. The interpretation of World War I as an extended cricket match, fought for the sake of school as much as country, was common in the letters and diaries of the trenches, and the glorification of the public schools in popular literature for boys bolstered the image of the school as an object of devotion.

Prevailing conceptions of gender were entrenched in the public school and boys were urged to interpret effeminacy as the antithesis of the public school ideal and a menace to national life. Similarly, the developing provision for girls in institutions such as the North London Collegiate School and Cheltenham Ladies' College, despite reproducing elements of the curricula and organizational culture of the boys' schools, attempted to mediate the cultivation of character with traditional feminine ideals: boys were to be made manly and girls were to be womanly. The spread of coeducation from the early twentieth century was resisted on these grounds, though by this time the public schools faced other diverse challenges. From an egalitarian assault on elitism to accusations of fostering national decline through an anti-industrial ethos, the public school was not without its critics in the twentieth century. However, the institutions proved largely able to navigate change while retaining their independence and many of those characteristics that have distinguished public schools from those of the state sector. The path from the public school to the higher echelons of political and professional life remained well trodden in twentieth-century Britain.

See also: Coeducation and Same-Sex Schooling; Education, Europe; Private and Independent Schools.


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