Secondary Education in England, 1870-1902: Public Activity and Private Enterprise

By John Roach | Go to book overview

14

Private schools: strengths and weaknesses

As the public schools grew in prestige and importance after 1850, the private schools, which had reached their hey-day in the first half of the century, had declined. One clear sign of change was the tendency of men who had been pupils at private schools of one kind or another to send their sons to public schools and then to Oxford and Cambridge. The Worcestershire ironmaster Alfred Baldwin had left the Wesleyan Collegiate Institution at Taunton at the age of 16 to go into the family firm. His son Stanley, the future prime minister, born in 1867, was sent to an exclusive preparatory school, Hawtrey’s, then to Harrow and to Trinity College, Cambridge (R. Jenkins 1987:34; see also pp. 138-9). The decline of the private schools can be exaggerated. They remained important up to the end of the century, particularly in educating girls, because in many parts of the country there were few high schools of the new type and many parents did not favour them even when they were available. However, after 1870, private schoolmasters and mistresses felt themselves increasingly a beleaguered race, confronted by ever keener competition with, as they saw it, the dice loaded against them in favour of endowed and state-aided schools.

The private schools were of many different sizes and of several different types. The commonest type, both for boys and girls, was that owned by an individual or by two or three partners and conducted for private profit. It was a scholastic business which had no cushion against failure other than the success of the owner in paying his or her own way. Other schools were at once semi-private and semi-public. They were public because they were owned and managed by groups of people sharing common and enduring interests. They were private because they lacked either the charters or the endowments of the old grammar schools and, like the schools owned by individuals, they had to pay their way in order to survive. For all the varied schools of this class ‘private foundation school’ is a convenient general title (HSE: 6-7). One substantial sub-group in this class consisted of the proprietary schools, established by proprietors or shareholders, generally on the lines of the old classical grammar schools. These had been a major development of the 1820s and

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