public schools

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During the Middle Ages, the grammar school provided education for poor scholars intended for the church and for the sons of noblemen. This included such schools as Eton and Winchester. By the 18th cent. a number of ‘Great Schools’ had emerged, including Harrow, Rugby, Sherborne, and Canterbury. Other changes during the early 19th cent. stimulated the demand for public schools. Reforms in public schools were introduced by heads such as Samuel Butler at Shrewsbury (1793–1836), and Dr Thomas Arnold at Rugby (1828–42), who were clerics. The school chapel became the focal point of life, discipline was enforced through prefects, and team games emphasized.

Criticism of some of the public schools was so persistent that a royal commission was appointed in 1861, under Lord Clarendon, to investigate conditions in the nine large public schools—Winchester, Eton, Westminster, Charterhouse, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, St Paul's, and Merchant Taylors'. Whilst broadly satisfied, the commissioners made a number of recommendations which were embodied in the Public Schools Act (1868). Governing bodies were reformed and schools such as Harrow developed a modern side.

Attempts were made in the 20th cent. to bridge the gap between public schools and the state‐provided sector. The Fleming Report (1944) and the first report of the Public Schools Commission (1968) (Newsom) were impracticable. The second report (1970) (Donnison) was more positive, but the advent of a Conservative government avoided further threats. The term public school has now been superseded by independent school.

Subjects: British History.

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