In 1870 the public schools, after twenty years of steady progress, stood at the beginning of their greatest era of prestige and success. The Clarendon Commission (1861-4) had examined the nine great schools—Eton, Winchester, Westminster, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Charterhouse, plus the two London day schools, St Paul’s and Merchant Taylors—though only the first seven were covered by the Public Schools Act of 1868. In addition to the Clarendon schools a number of old grammar schools, like Tonbridge, Repton, and Sherborne, had been moving, under able headmasters, towards public school status, which was also rapidly acquired by many of the Victorian foundations like Cheltenham (1840), Marlborough (1843), and Wellington (1859). By the end of the century the public school community consisted of about 100 schools, made up from the same three groups, though these differed widely in status and importance among themselves.
It is extremely difficult to define a public school. A.F. Leach (Leach 1899:6-7) argued that it was a school with high fees attracting the richer classes, that it was entirely or almost entirely a boarding school, that it was under the control of a public body, and that it drew its pupils from all parts of the country. Leach and everyone of that time assumed that it was a school for boys. The control by a board of governors, as opposed to ownership by a private individual, and the recruitment from a group of comparatively well-to-do parents can be accepted as general characteristics of the type. However, schools varied very much in the fees they charged and therefore in the social groups they attracted. Although the best-known schools were entirely or predominantly boarding and therefore non-local, there were day schools that had a better claim to the title ‘public school’ than many boarding schools. The outstanding examples here were the great London day schools like St Paul’s, Merchant Taylors, City of London, and Dulwich, though there were similar schools in the provinces like Bedford, and it would be difficult to exclude some of the great city grammar schools like Manchester.
A satisfactory definition should look not only, as Leach did, to the preconditions but also to the product. A public school could be judged
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Publication information: Book title: Secondary Education in England, 1870-1902:Public Activity and Private Enterprise. Contributors: John Roach - Author. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: New York. Publication year: 1991. Page number: 119.
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