In the United Kingdom, any of a small group of tuition-charging secondary schools that specialize in preparing students for university and for public service. The name public school dates from the 18th century, when the schools began attracting students from beyond their immediate environs and thus became “public” as opposed to local. Such schools are thus in fact private schools independent of the state system. Although many schools have become coeducational, only boys attend the historically important schools Winchester (1394), Eton (1440–41), Westminster (1560), and Harrow (1571); well-known girls' schools include Cheltenham (1853), Roedean (1885), and Wycomb Abbey (1896). Public schools cultivated a class-conscious code of behaviour, speech, and appearance that set the standard for British officialdom from the early 19th century. Seealso secondary education.
Learn more about public school with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Some independent schools, particularly the more traditional institutions, also have charitable status. Research shows that UK independent schools receive approximately £100m tax relief due to charitable status whilst returning £300m of fee assistance in public benefit and relieving the maintained sector (state schools) of £2bn of costs. There are more than 2,500 independent schools in the UK, educating some 615,000 children, the Daily Telegraph claiming seven per cent of children are educated in private schools throughout the country. Most of the larger independent schools are either full or partial boarding schools.
See List of independent schools in Scotland for a full list, by county, by cost and by academic results.
Historically, in Scotland, it was common for children destined for independent schools (usually sons of the upper classes) to receive their primary education at a local school. This arose because of Scotland's long tradition of public education, which was spearheaded by the Church of Scotland from the seventeenth century, long before such education was common in England. Independent prep schools only became more widespread in Scotland from the late 19th century (usually attached to an existing secondary independent school, though exceptions such as Cargilfield Preparatory School do exist), though they are still much less prevalent than in England. They are, however, currently gaining in numbers.
Speir's school near Beith in North Ayrshire was set up as an independent school and existed as such from 1888 to 1937 when it became a part of the local education authority. The school eventually closed in 1972 when a number of local schools were combined to become Garnock Academy, built on a new site in Kilbirnie.
Only a minority of parents can afford school fees averaging over £19,000 per annum for boarding pupils and £9,000 for day pupils, with unpredictable extra costs for uniform, equipment and facilities. Some parents make immense sacrifices to send their children to these schools.Means-tested bursaries to assist the education of the less well-off, a mission which may form the historic basis of the school, are usually awarded by a process which combines academic and other criteria.
Facilities for dyslexia or for gifted children are common, and other special needs may be accommodated. However some independent schools are highly selective on academic grounds, using the competitive Common Entrance examinations at ages 11-13. Scholarships are offered to attract brighter pupils, sometimes approaching the GCSE standard intended for age 16. Poorly performing pupils may be required to leave, and following GCSE results are replaced in the sixth form by a new tranche of high-performing pupils, which may distort apparent results.
Independent schools, as compared with maintained schools, are generally characterised by more individual teaching; much better pupil-teacher ratios at around 9:1.; longer teaching hours (sometimes including Saturday morning teaching) and homework, though shorter terms; more time for organised sports and extra-curricular activities; more emphasis on traditional academic subjects such as maths, classics and modern languages; a broader view of education than that prescribed by the national curriculum, to which state school education is in practice limited; more emphasis on achievement, whether academic, sporting, musical, dramatic, artistic, or otherwise; and historical buildings and school traditions. Pastoral care is regarded as important, and the manners and morals learnt, and schoolfriends made, naturally reflect the social classes from which wealthier parents are drawn. Even allowing for the selected pupils, educational achievement is excellent. Independent school pupils are four times more likely to attain an A* at GCSE than their state sector counterparts and twice as likely to attain an A grade at A level. Accordingly a totally disproporionate number go to university; however studies have shown a significant deterioration in the performance of independent school students at university, compared to state educated students who have overcome their clear disadvantage. . Universities assessing academic potential should therefore show preference for state school applicants with comparable A-level results, and are encouraged to do so by government funding.
Independent schools do not have to follow the national curriculum, so a wider range of subjects is available for study. Even in day schools, school hours are substantially longer than at state schools, so allowing a broader or deeper education. Some schools specialise in particular strengths, whether academic, vocational or artistic, and most diversify into sporting, musical, dramatic and art facilities, often with the benefit of generations of past investment.
Independent schools are able to set their own discipline regime, with much greater freedom to exclude children, primarily exercised in the wider interests of the school: the most usual causes being drug-taking, whether at school or away, or an open rejection of the school's values, such as dishonesty or violence.
In England and Wales there are no requirements for teaching staff to have Qualified Teacher Status or to be registered with the General Teaching Council; but as independent schools must necessarily offer better facilities and smaller classes, often easier pupils, and better pay, they generally attract and require a higher standard of teachers. In Scotland a teaching qualification and registration with the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) is mandatory for all teaching positions.
The Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools(IAPS) is the prep schools heads association serving the top 500+ independent prep schools in the UK and Worldwide. IAPS is one of seven affiliated associations of the Independent Schools Council.
There are 130,000 pupils in over 500 schools of all types and sizes. Prep schools may be for boys or girls only, or may be co-educational. They may be day schools, boarding schools, weekly boarding, flexi-boarding, or a combination. They fall into the following general categories:
This English usage of the word "public" contrasts with the expectations of many English speakers from around the world. Outside the British Isles people usually refer to fee-paying schools as private schools or independent schools; many would assume that the word "public" should imply public financial support. Indeed, in many countries "public school" is the commonplace name for any government-maintained school where instruction is provided free of charge and attendance may be compulsory up to certain age. In England such a maintained school would commonly be called a state school, a local authority school, or a foundation or community school. Usage in Scotland has its own particular nuances: as in England nowadays, there is a tendency to avoid the phrase "public school" altogether, and to speak of "state schools" or "council schools" on the one hand and "private" or "independent schools" on the other. However, contrary to practice in England, the phrase "public school" is used in official documents (and still sometimes colloquially) to refer to Scottish state-funded schools. When the term is applied informally to independent schools located in Scotland some interpret the usage as an Anglicism or a parody of English usage.
The English usage dates to an era before the development of widespread national state-sponsored education in England and Wales, although Scotland had early universal provision of education through the Church of Scotland dating from the mid 16th century, and the system of education in Scotland remains separate and different from the system covering England and Wales. Some schools (often called "grammar schools") were sponsored by towns or villages or by guilds, others by cathedrals for their choir. "Private schools" were owned and operated by their headmasters, for their own profit or loss, and often in their own houses. "Public schools" often drew students from across the country to board; in the 19th century golden era of public schools, boys from upper-class families typically began their education with home tutoring or as a day student at a local private school (what would today be called a preparatory school), and then went off to board at a public school once old enough.
The term in England can be traced to the Middle Ages, an era when most education was accomplished by tutoring or monasteries. In later centuries, the landed classes educated their boys at home, with visiting resident tutors, or with the local clergyman -- that is, privately, away from the hurly-burly of the towns. In the 19th century, it became the fashion to send boys to mix with their contemporaries, that is, to be educated publicly. Public schools were independent charities that started by often offering free education. As time passed, such schools expanded greatly in size to include many fee-paying students alongside a few charitable scholars, until they acquired their upper-class connotations. By the late 19th century, public schools were characterized not so much by the way the schools were governed or the students educated as by a very specific ethos of student life often celebrated or parodied in the novels of the day, the best-known of which is probably Tom Brown's Schooldays.
Prior to the Clarendon Commission, a Royal Commission that investigated the public school system in England between 1861 and 1864, there was no clear definition of a public school. The commission investigated nine of the more established schools: two day schools (Merchant Taylors', London and St Paul's) and seven boarding schools (Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester). A report published by the commission formed the basis of the Public Schools Act 1868.
Another way of determining the major public schools is to distinguish them by the players allowed to play in the Butterfly Cricket Club which was founded by an old Rugbeian. Only players who came from what were and are considered the major public schools were allowed to play. The schools included Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Marlborough, Oakham, Rugby, Westminster and Winchester. However, this omits Shrewsbury which is more famous and "major" than Oakham. Indeed, there is some fluidity in this area. Schools which had enjoyed the reputation of being major public schools at one time or another can become less fashionable while those which at one time were considered minor might find themselves more popular.
However, the common perception of public schools is that they pre-date the 20th century and were established as boys-only schools even if they are now coeducational, with distinctive traditions and high academic performance.
Some suggest that only particularly old independent schools should be afforded the dignity of "public school" (see Lists of independent schools in the UK below).
The terms of reference of the influential Fleming Committee on Public Schools, which was appointed by the President of the Board of Education in 1942 and reported in 1944, defined as a public school any school which was a member of either the Headmasters' Conference or the Association of Governing Bodies of Public Schools.
The transformation of free charitable foundations into expensive institutions came about readily: the foundation would only afford minimal facilities, so that further fees might be charged to lodge, clothe and otherwise maintain the scholars, to the private profit of the trustees or headmaster; and also facilities already provided by the charitable foundation for a few scholars could profitably be extended to further paying pupils. (Some schools still keep their foundation scholars in a separate house from other pupils.) After a time, such fees would eclipse the original charitable income, and the endowment would naturally become a minor part of the capital benefactions enjoyed by the school. Nowadays there is remarkably little difference between the fees of an ancient public school with magnificent facilities, grounds and endowments, and those of many minor public schools with little capital: effectively the capital and income from former benefactors finance superior facilities, which attract better staff and wealthy parents who may be generous in their turn.
However, some schools do demand significantly higher fees than others, the most expensive being (in order): Tonbridge, Eton, Bradfield, Winchester, Charterhouse, Forest School, Cranleigh, Harrow, Gordonstoun, Cheltenham Ladies College, Cheltenham College, Dean Close, Bedales, Rugby, Badminton School, and St John's School, Leatherhead.
One school which continues its charitable foundation ethos is Christ's Hospital, a boarding school in Horsham: fees are charged according to the family income (in 2005, the fees for about one third of the pupils were less than £250 per year). Well-off families are discouraged - the number of pupils whose fees are the full amount (~£15,000) is limited to 6% of the School population. Millfield is a modern foundation with a significant proportion of its pupils on scholarships for those with limited means.
The educational reforms of the 19th century were particularly important under first Arnold at Rugby, and then Butler and later Kennedy at Shrewsbury, the former emphasising team spirit and muscular Christianity and the latter the importance of scholarship and competitive examinations. Most public schools developed significantly during the 18th and 19th centuries, and came to play an important role in the development of the Victorian social elite. Under a number of forward-looking headmasters leading public schools created a curriculum based heavily on classics and physical activity for boys and young men of the upper and upper middle classes.
They were schools for the gentlemanly elite of Victorian politics, armed forces and colonial government. Often successful businessmen would send their sons to a public school as a mark of participation in the elite. Much of the discipline was in the hands of senior pupils (usually known as prefects), which was not just a means to reduce staffing costs, but was also seen as vital preparation for those pupils' later rôles in public or military service. More recently heads of public schools have been emphasising that senior pupils now play a much reduced role in disciplining.
To an extent, the public school system influenced the school systems of the British empire, and recognisably 'public' schools can be found in many Commonwealth countries.
The role of public schools in preparing pupils for the gentlemanly elite in the period before World War II 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 "empire upon which the sun never set" invariably sent their sons back home to boarding schools for education as English 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". Ex-pupils often had a nostalgic affection for their old schools and a public school tie could be useful in a career, so an "old boy network" of former pupils became important.
The English public school model influenced the nineteenth 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 set back 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 tension between the grammar school educated protagonist and the public school background of his superiors and posh 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 any parents who can afford the fees or qualify for bursaries towards public schools, which now prefer to be known as independent schools.
Labour Party leaders Clement Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell , Michael Foot and Tony Blair were educated at independent schools. The current Conservative leader, David Cameron was educated at Eton, whilst his Shadow Chancellor George Osborne attended St Paul's School.
In 2003 84.5% of senior Judges in England and Wales were educated at independent schools, as surveyed in. This is especially significant considering just 7% of all British children are educated at independent schools.
Amongst the oldest independent schools in the UK are (chronologically): Cor Tewdws (College of Theodosius), Llantwit Major (446 - closed down in reign of Henry VIII)
The former classics-based curriculum was also criticised for not providing skills in sciences or engineering. It was Martin Wiener's opposition to this tendency which inspired his 1981 polemic "English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980". It became a huge influence on the Thatcher government's opposition to old-school gentlemanly Toryism. This has now been turned on its head. Independent schools provide a disproportionately high number of science, modern foreign language and maths undergraduates.
Some parents complain that their rights and their children’s are compromised by vague and one-sided contracts which allow Heads to use discretionary powers unfairly, such as in expulsion on non-disciplinary matters. They believe independent schools have not embraced the principles of natural justice as adopted by the state sector, and private law as applied to Higher Education.
The exclusivity of independent schools has attracted political antagonism ever since the First World War. Many of the best-known independent schools are prohibitively expensive (Tonbridge School in Kent charges over £27k per annum ), despite being based, in many cases, on charitable foundations originally established up to a thousand years ago to provide free education for the talented poor. Going some way to countering the charge of exclusivity, a large number (c. one third) of independent school pupils have assistance with fees. The Thatcher government introduced the Assisted Places Scheme in England and Wales in 1980, whereby the state paid the school fees for those students capable of gaining a place but unable to afford the fees. This was essentially a response to the decision of the previous Labour government in the mid-1970s to remove government funding of direct-grant grammar schools, most of which then became private schools; some Assisted Places students went to the former direct-grant schools such as Manchester Grammar School. The scheme was terminated by the Labour government in 1997, and since then the private sector has moved to increase its own means-tested bursaries.
Generally political attacks on private schools have been opposed by concern that there should be no totalitarian state control of education, and undoubtedly by influential 'Old Boys' (former pupils) who tend to be fiercely protective of their Old Schools. A major area of debate in recent years has centred around the continuing charitable status of independent schools, which allows them not to charge VAT on school fees. Following the enactment of the Charities Bill, which was passed by the House of Lords in November 2006, charitable status is based on an organisation providing a 'public benefit' as judged by the Charity Commission. Pending the Charity Commission publishing its definitive guidance on 'public benefit' at the end of 2008, there remains an incentive for independent schools to share their sporting, musical and other facilities with the public or local state schools, and supplement their charitable endowments with an increased number of subsidised scholarships and bursaries.
In 2005, students at fee-paying schools made up 43.9% of those selected for places at Oxford University and 38% of those granted places at Cambridge University, although such students made up only 7% of the school population. Independent schools are to some extent selective and may give a better education to their more motivated students than some non-fee-paying schools; opponents argue that notwithstanding the provision of a large number of scholarships and bursaries to allow a number of gifted children from poorer backgrounds to attend independent schools, this disproportionate allocation of Oxbridge places to children from affluent backgrounds is both unfair (since it is not based on merit alone) and inefficient (since it is less likely to lead to the most able individuals performing the most important jobs in society). Research carried out by the University of Warwick in 2002 suggested that a student educated at an independent school has an 8% lower chance of getting a first or an upper second degree than a state school pupil who enters university with the same A-level grades. Defenders of fee-paying schools highlight the fact that the abolition of such schools or the reduction in private school numbers (as would likely result from the removal of charitable status and VAT exemption) would constitute a 'levelling-down' of standards and would therefore lead to a worsening of educational standards overall. The response from opponents of independent schools is that the benefit which would then accrue to children and schools currently outside the fee-paying sector as a result of the abolition of fee-paying schools (via peer-group effects and increased levels of parental concern and scrutiny of the way schools are run) would more than offset the disbenefit to children removed from the fee-paing sector. The Labour Government has brought financial pressure to bear on the universities to admit a higher proportion of state school applicants than would be obtained simply by reference to their A-level grades and interview performance, on the basis that applicants are academically crammed by an independent school education, and receive an undue advantage from the interview system.