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In most of the United Kingdom and in some Commonwealth countries, a public school is a traditional independent school for secondary-age pupils that is funded by a combination of endowments, tuition fees and other non-governmental funding. It does not rely on taxpayer contributions, and is independent from both central and local government control.[1] These schools, wherever located, often follow a British educational tradition. Originally, many were single-sex boarding schools, but many are now co-educational with both boarders and day-pupils. This usage is synonymous with preparatory school in the USA, although in British English preparatory school has a different meaning.

Whether a particular independent school is or is not a public school is not clearly defined, although there are some which indisputably are, and others which clearly are not. While this usage of the term public school is common in most of the United Kingdom, it can be ambiguous in Scotland, where it often refers to a publicly funded school.

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United Kingdom

School Yard at Eton College - a well known British Public School

In England and Wales the loosely defined term "public school" refers to leading fee-charging independent secondary schools. The term is sometimes restricted to well-established boys' schools, usually those offering boarding facilities, but it is also used for independent schools that are normally members of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. Today nearly all such schools, no matter what their history, tend to call themselves "independent schools". In Scotland and Ireland the term "public school" is not commonly used in this sense. Indeed, in Scotland and Northern Ireland the phrase has long been an alternative name for council schools in the state sector.

A public school (in the independent sense) usually teaches children from the ages of 11 or 13 (the latter being the traditional age at which boys moved from junior school to senior school, although many now move at 11) to 18, and was traditionally a single-sex boarding school, although most now accept day pupils and are coeducational. The majority date back to the 18th or 19th centuries, but several are over 600 years old.

This English usage of the word "public" contrasts with the expectations of many English speakers from around the world who refer to such schools as "private." Outside the United Kingdom, 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. The term "private school" if used means the same as in other English-speaking countries, or formerly and more specifically a privately-owned primary Preparatory ("Prep") School.

Usage in Scotland (see Education in Scotland) has its own particular nuances: 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.

In the United Kingdom the term "school" is not generally used to describe institutions of further or higher education (exceptions include the London School of Economics, the School of Oriental and African Studies and the Guildhall School of Music), but it is used to denote academic and administrative divisions within a university, such as a medical school or a school of engineering or political science. It is otherwise restricted to primary and secondary schools.

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Early usage

The English usage can be traced to the Middle Ages, an era when most education was accomplished by chaplains or monasteries. 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, usually clergymen, for their own profit, and often in their own houses. The landed classes educated their children in their households, with a visiting or resident clergyman — that is, privately, away from the hurly-burly of the towns.

Public schools were charities that often started by offering free education to a few pupils. The term "public" then distinguished a school open to public applicants, then generally provided by a church or monastery, from the schools in private households which were then more usual. The earliest known reference to a "public school" dates from 1364, when the Bishop of Winchester wrote concerning "the public school" at Kingston in his diocese.[2]

As time passed, such schools expanded to include many fee-paying students alongside the few charitable scholars. From the 17th century and the Age of Enlightenment, it increasingly became the fashion to send boys to mix with their contemporaries, that is, to be educated publicly. By the late 19th century, public schools were characterised not so much by the way the schools were governed or the pupils 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.

"Public schools" often drew pupils from across the country to board; in the 19th century golden era of public schools, when there were many middle-class expatriates in the service of the British Empire, pupils were often sent back to public schools specifically so as to be brought up in England.

Boys from upper-middle class and upper-class families typically began their education with home tutoring or at a local private school (which would today be called a pre-prep school) until they had learned to read and write; and then went off to board at a preparatory school), and then a public school once old enough.

In the nineteenth century the Clarendon Commission and the Public Schools Act 1868 used the common term to refer to the nine old-established schools whose outdated charitable trusts and governance they reformed. Many similar boarding schools were established for British Empire expatriates to educate their sons at home, and a number of ancient grammar schools later aimed to conform to the ethos of the Public Schools named in successive Acts.

Recent usage

The term "Public School" is generally used now in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and sometimes Scotland to refer to any school that is a member of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The schools and their representative associations prefer the more inclusive term "independent schools", but common usage and the news media in England often refer to them by the traditional name of "Public Schools". This grouping primarily includes the prestigious independent schools such as Eton College or Harrow School, in a similar manner to the Ivy League grouping of American universities, or better the exclusive private boarding high schools of the US such as Choate Rosemary Hall, Phillips Academy (Andover), or Phillips Exeter Academy - other private schools might be called "independent", but would not be called "Public Schools". An indication of this distinction may be seen in E. W. Hornung's third "Raffles" collection, A Thief in the Night (1905): Raffles complains that anyone who received a private education now claims that he "went to a Public School".

These schools are now only "public" in the sense of being open to any students, and in practice there are many qualifications:

  • pupils usually need to pass the Common Entrance Examination before being admitted at all, and many such schools are highly academically selective; references from previous schools may be expected
  • all but the best scholars must be able to afford the considerable fees for tuition and (for boarders) room and board. Most public schools are constituted as charities, and explicit Public Benefit requirements for all charities are being introduced under the Charities Act 2006 which may enforce some greater degree of public accessibility independently of ability to pay;
  • schools generally operate at a full fixed capacity, with a limited number of vacancies each year. There may be a waiting list system, registration fees and prequalifications such as interviews
  • there are many single-sex schools, although the proportion is falling, especially in the sixth forms
  • a few schools maintain religious conditions, often based upon their original foundation by clergy of the established Church; there may be compulsory services of a particular denomination;
  • a school is perfectly entitled to exercise full discretion over admissions, subject only to general law against discrimination. Thus preference might be given to musicians, deserving children, or relations of old members, staff or benefactors, or on any other published or unpublished criteria.

Typically public schools have offered by competitive academic examination a small number of wholly or partly funded scholarship places, sometimes covering only tuition and not boarding fees. They grew by accepting tuition fees for additional pupils (who might subsequently win competitive scholarships). Nowadays there are often means-tested fees or bursaries and other forms of scholarships.

Differing definitions

The head teachers of major British independent boys' and mixed schools belong to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), and a common but disputed definition of a public school is any school whose head teacher is a member of the HMC.[3] It is debatable as to whether any girls' school can be considered to be a public school. A more exclusive "league" that defines the public schools would be the Eton Group, the Haileybury Group and the Rugby Group with fewer schools.

Public schools are often categorised as either "major" or "minor" public schools, but there are no official criteria and the inclusion of a school in one or the other group is purely a matter of opinion (although a select few would be included in any list of "major" schools). Thus, in E W Hornung's book Raffles Further Adventures (1901), the following exchange takes place: "'Varsity man?" "No." "Public school?" "Yes." "Which one?" I told him, and he sighed relief. "At last! You're the very first I've not had to argue with as to what is and what is not a public school." A similar exchange takes place in Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers: '"What' would you call a public school, then?" "Eton...and Harrow" "Rugby?" "No no, that's a railway junction!"'

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 long-established schools: two day schools (Merchant Taylors', London and St Paul's) and seven boarding schools (Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester). The Commission's report of many abuses that had grown up in the charitable foundations 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 Butterflies Cricket Club which was founded by two 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.

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' and Headmistresses' Conference or the Association of Governing Bodies of Public Schools.[4]

Commonwealth

In most Commonwealth countries, formerly parts of the British Empire, the term "public school" is used the British English sense, meaning a prestigious privately funded school. However in some Commonwealth countries, for example in Canada and South Africa, the term "public school" has come to mean a publicly funded school, though these are more commonly called "state schools" in South Africa.

Australia

Chapel at Scotch College, Melbourne - a well known Australian Public School

In Australia the term "public school" is generally used to denote a state school.

Confusingly, it is also used in the British English sense - meaning a prestigious privately funded school. This is particularly reflected in the names of associations of well-known independent schools in three Australian States - the Associated Public Schools of Victoria, the Athletic Association of the Great Public Schools of New South Wales and the Great Public Schools Association of Queensland Inc.[5] There are also schools in other States that would consider themselves "Public Schools" in this sense, even though the term is not necessarily used in the name of a formal association in that State.

India and Sri Lanka

In India and Sri Lanka, due to the British influence, the term "public schools" implied non-governmental, historically elite educational institutions, often modeled on British public schools. The terms "private" and "government" school are commonly used to denote the type of funding. In consideration of government control or ownership, the central government administered Kendriya Vidyalayas (or Central Schools), Navodaya Vidyalaya system of schools qualify as per the American definition of "public" school. They are usually not completely privately run, being "aided" by the government. The standard and the quality of education is quite high. However there are privately owned and managed schools as well, many of whom have the appellation "Public" attached to them, e.g. the Delhi Public Schools, National Public Schools or Frank Anthony Public Schools. Most middle class families send their children to such schools, which might be in their own city or distant boarding school such as Rajkumar College, Rajkot, the oldest public school in India. The medium of education is English, but Hindi and/or the state's official language is also taught as a compulsory subject. Preschool education is mostly limited to organised neighbourhood nursery schools with some organised chains.

The most well known public school in Sri Lanka is Royal College. Although it is a governmental school it has much autonomy.

Pakistan

In Pakistan, the term "public school" has historically been used for British-styled boarding schools such as Abbottabad Public School and Sadiq Public School Bahawalpur. This has established a strong branding for the term "public school", and most of these schools are private, non-governmental boarding schools.

References

  1. ^ The Good Schools Guide, (2008), Lucas Publications
  2. ^ Education in History, Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames.
  3. ^ London based national newspapers and broadcasting media tend to use the terms private, public, and independent, interchangeably, quite often in the same article, but they often quote membership of the HMC as a criterion. Some examples:
  4. ^ Board of Education, The Public Schools and the General Educational System: Report of the Committee on Public Schools, 1944
  5. ^ "Celebrating 100 Years". Associated Public Schools of Victoria. http://www.apssport.org.au/fileadmin/user_upload/History/APSV_-_Celebrating_100_Years_1908-2008_-_extended_with_footnotes.pdf. Retrieved 28 November 2009. 

See also

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