public schools

public schools
   About 6 percent of British children attend ‘independent schools’. Though officially inspected to ensure standards, they are largely independent of both the state and the local education authority. Their funding comes from endowments and, for the most part, the fees they charge. Only the most prestigious independent secondary schools are called ‘public schools’, an imprecise and increasingly discarded term. Some are ancient foundations which were radically reformed in Victorian times, when several more were set up; others followed in the first half of the twentieth century. The heads of most of these schools form the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (hence ‘HMC schools’). Changing the name to include headmistresses reflected both the status of many girls’ schools and trends towards coeducation in schools originally admitting only boys. Qualifications for HMC membership include a large sixth form and independence from the state education system, although pupils take GCSEs and A levels. Boards of governors control public schools, acting as trustees, overseeing finances and working with the head for excellent teaching and pastoral care.
   While much is made of tradition, modernization is evident in a marked decline in classics in favour of a wide range of A levels. Though less emphasis is now placed on religion, sport is still taken very seriously. Cadet corps, intended as preparation for military careers or the Territorial Army, now exist alongside other leisure activities, from Duke of Edinburgh Awards to bird-watching. Music is highly regarded. Though many public schools cater exclusively or largely for boarders, others— among them some of the best—are day schools; many of them were originally town grammar schools. In 1997 the government announced the phasing out of the ‘assisted places scheme’ which met, fully or in part, public school fees for a certain number of pupils from less affluent families. Seeing public schools as bastions of privilege, critics decry them as socially divisive. The more knowledgeable among them admit, however, that intensive, wellresourced teaching to carefully selected small groups regularly leads to impressive results and that, as state secondary education improves and more people go on to university, the ‘old school tie’ is less of a factor in career prospects than hitherto. ‘Old boys’ (and girls) are themselves rarely indifferent about their public school; they usually regard it either with loyalty or loathing.
   See also: class system; schools system
   Further reading
    Rae, J. (1981) The Public School Revolution, London: Faber.
   CHRISTOPHER SMITH

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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