Public school (UK)

A public school, in common English and Welsh usage, is a (usually) prestigious school, for children usually between the ages of 11 or 13 and 18, which charges fees and is not financed by the state. It is traditionally a single-sex boarding school, although many now accept day pupils and are coeducational. The majority date back to the 18th or 19th centuries, and several are over 400 years old. By contrast, a government-maintained school, where instruction is provided free of charge, is called a state school.

The English usage of the term "public school" is in direct opposition to what any foreign English speaker would expect. In countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, the United States and Canada, a "public school" is the equivalent of an English "state school", while an independent, fee-charging school is called a "private school". This is also the generic name for all fee-paying schools for children in England and Wales, although rarely used for those which categorise themselves as public schools. Preparatory schools (historically also known as "private schools", as they were usually privately owned by the headmaster) take children from the age of eight (or younger) and prepare them for their entrance exams to public schools.

The term "public" (first adopted by Eton College) refers to the fact that the school is open to the paying public, as opposed to a religious school, which was open only to members of a certain church. It also distinguished it from a private education at home (usually only practical for the very wealthy who could afford tutors).


Origins of public schools

Some public schools are particularly old, such as Westminster (founded 1179), Eton (1440), St. Paul's (1509), Sherborne (1550), Bedford (1552), Shrewsbury School (1552), Rugby (1567), Harrow (1572), Uppingham (1584), Charterhouse (1611) and Winchester (1382), which has maintained the longest unbroken history of any school in England. These were often established for male scholars from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds. The educational reforms were particularly important under Arnold at Rugby, and Butler and later Kennedy at Shrewsbury, emphasizing the importance of scholarship and competitive examinatons.

Most public schools, however, developed during the 18th and 19th centuries, and came to play an important role in the development of the Victorian social elite. Under a number of forward-looking headmasters leading public schools created a curriculum based heavily on classics and physical activity for boys and young men of the upper and upper middle classes.

They were schools for the gentlemanly elite of Victorian politics, armed forces and colonial government. Often successful businessmen would send their sons to public school as a mark of participation in the elite. Much of the discipline was (and is) in the hands of senior pupils (usually known as prefects), which was not just a means to reduce staffing costs, but was also seen as vital preparation for those pupils' later rles in public or military service.

To an extent, the public school system influenced the school systems of the British empire, and recognisably 'public' schools can be found in many Commonwealth countries. Many prep schools in the United States (such as Groton School) are also recognisably 'public' in the British sense.

Differing definitions

For a fuller listing of public and other independent schools in Britain, see List of UK Independent Schools.

The head teachers of major British independent boys' and mixed schools belong to the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), and a common definition of a public school is any school whose head teacher is a member of the HMC. However some do not consider every HMC school to be a typical public school, and thus other definitions are sometimes employed. Nor does this definition does include any girls' schools; it is debatable as to whether girls' schools can be considered public schools.

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 of the more established schools: two day schools (Merchant Taylors' and St. Paul's) and seven boarding schools (Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester). A report published by the commission formed the basis of the Public Schools Act 1868. These 9 are sometimes cited as the only public schools, albeit mainly by those who attended them.

Some suggest that only particularly old independent schools should be afforded the dignity of "public school". Amongst the oldest independent schools in the UK are (chronologically):

The Public Schools Yearbook published in 1889 named the following 25 boarding schools:

However, it notably omitted the Merchant Taylors' and St Paul's day schools. It also omitted the City of London School, another day school, which derived from a medieval foundation of 1442, was reconstituted by a private Act of Parliament in 1835, and was held to be a public school by the Divisional Court in the case of Blake v City of London (1886).


While, under the best circumstances, these schools were superb examples of education, the reliance on corporal punishment and the prefect system could also make them a cruel and hostile environment. The classics-based curriculum was also criticised for not providing skills in sciences or engineering.

It was Martin Wiener's opposition to this tendency which inspired his 1981 polemic "English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980". It became a huge influence on the Thatcher government's opposition to old-school gentlemanly Toryism. The Thatcher government introduced the Assisted Places scheme in 1980, whereby the state paid the school fees of those students capable of gaining a place but unable to afford the fees. The scheme was axed by the Labour government in 1997, since when the private sector has moved to organise various means-tested bursaries of its own. There is presently some debate, emanating from Labour circles, as to whether independent schools deserve their charitable status – a tax break which, some critics argue, amounts to a government subsidy for the privileged. Independent schools argue that they are charitable and educational foundations which do not seek profits; many schools raise money for charities, encourage their pupils to take up community service, and lease their facilities to the public.

'Public schools' in modern Britain

Today most public schools are highly selective on academic grounds, as well as financial grounds (ability to pay high fees). Many parents continue to make immense sacrifices to be able to send their children to these schools as there is a continuing belief that the education is not only academically beneficial but can also offer other social advantages. Indeed many politicians of all parties, including Prime Minister Tony Blair (Fettes), are products of public schools.

Defining a British public school can be as complex today as it has ever been. Many newly founded fee-paying schools in the UK today do not refer to themselves as 'public schools', preferring the term 'independent school'. This may be because they do not share the centuries of social associations and traditions of the older public school system.

Slang peculiar to or originating from public schools

The following list includes some commonly used slang terms, and some historic slang, used at public schools in the UK:

Term Meaning School
ABROAD Out of the sick room. Winchester
BAD EGG A nasty and unpleasant person. -
BEAK Teacher or tutor. Eton
BEARDS! An exclamation of surprise. The Leys School
BEDDER A bedmaker and cleaner. Also used in Cambridge University
BEEF(CHOP) To not do or not care about something when having an ability to do so Shrewsbury
BIBBLING Six strokes of the cane Winchester
BOK One / school site Perse School, Cambridge
BRUSHING Flogging. Christ's Hospital
CARRELL A booth for private study St Paul's School; also used at universities
CHEESE A dandy. Cambridge
CHINNER Wide grin Winchester
CLIPE To tell tales. -
CORPS Combined Cadet Force (formerly Junior Division of the Officers Training Corps) -
COXY Conceited -
EXECUTION Flogging by the Head Master with a birchrod. Eton
FAG A junior boy who acts as servant for a sixth-former. -
GOD A prefect or sixth former. Eton
GOOD EGG A trustworthy or reliable person (later inversion of BAD EGG). -
HALL Homework. Malvern College
MAJOR Such as Smith Major, the elder brother. -
MAXIMUS Such as Smith Maximus, the eldest brother (of three or more). -
MINIMUS Such as Smith Minimus, the youngest brother (of three or more). -
MINOR Such as Smith Minor, the younger brother. -
MONITOR Prefect. Bedford, Bolton, Harrow, Westminster
MUCK-UP DAY The last day of term for the Remove students, where sponsored 'misdemeanours' are common. Westminster
MUZZ To read. Westminster
NEWBIE New boy. Now a general term.
OICK Junior boy or non-public school person. -
OPTION Minor prefect. Bedford.
PEPPER To fill in the accents on a Greek exercise. -
PLEB Junior boy or non-public school person (derives from the Latin 'plebeius' referring to those of plebeian (common) stock). -
PREP Homework (from 'preparation'). -
QUILL To flatter. Winchester
RAG A misdemeanour, hence: -
RAG WEEK where sponsored 'misdemeanours' are common. Also used at some universities
REMOVE The year before the 4th form (age 14 (usually 15)) and 5th form (age 16). Bedford
Final years before one is 'removed' from the school (ages 13 and 18). Westminster (and Westminster Under School)
SAPPY Severe flogging. -
SCHOOL SIXTH Lowest rank of prefect. Plymouth
SHELL A boy in the youngest year Harrow, St. Edward's, Marlborough, Westminster, Winchester
SWIPE A sweater in House colours used for sports Marlborough
TITCHING caning Christ's Hospital
TOPSCHOOLS Homework Shrewsbury

See also

nl:Public school zh:公学


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