What makes a ‘public school’ public?

During 2020 I’ve been researching and writing a couple of chapters for a forthcoming Routledge book on the history of education. My contributions look at the development of liberal education from Ancient Greece to the Industrial Revolution. I’m now in the final stages of editing, cutting the chapters down to fit the allotted word count. Here’s one section that got the chop, because it sat outside the main thrust of the narrative. Nevertheless it explains the origins of an important and controversial feature of English educational culture

‘Public school’ has to be one of the most confusing phrases in education. In the US it means what most of us would expect it to mean – a community school that is free for members of the public to attend. In the UK, however, it means the opposite: an exclusive, fee-paying school attended by the children of the elite, such as Eton, St Paul’s or Harrow. A school much like a private school, in other words. So what, if anything, is ‘public’ about a public school?

The cover of The English Public School, featuring a painting of Rugby School in 1816.
My tattered copy of The English Public School

You may be surprised to know that public schools originated as charitable institutions for educating the poor. Vivian Ogilvie’s The English Public School (1957), which to my knowledge is the most extensive historical survey of the subject, traces the roots of the schools back to the fourteenth century, at which time formal education was in short supply and usually had to be paid for.

The medieval education system in England consisted of a couple of hundred grammar schools, plus elementary schools for basic reading and writing, and two universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Grammar schools were religious institutions attached to monasteries, cathedrals or chantries, and their masters taught under license from a bishop. Many of them were established by endowments from wealthy benefactors and so were nominally free to attend, but in practice often charged entrance and tuition fees, as well as requiring payments towards heating, lighting and cleaning.

Young boys attending these schools were taught Latin in preparation for a career as either a religious cleric or a secular clerk. Grammar schools provided a route to a career at a time when society was rigidly structured and what we would now call social mobility was next to non-existent.

William of Wykeham

Tragically, it took a pandemic to create a brief window of time during which talented young men could rise above their allotted station of life. The Black Death and plagues of the fourteenth century wiped out huge swathes of the population across Europe on a scale that makes covid look relatively benign. Among those who died prematurely were clerics, schoolmasters and members of the king’s Court, leaving many important roles empty.

One notable person who benefited from the opportunities this created was William of Wykeham (c1324-1404). Wykeham, named for his birth town Wickham in Hampshire, was the son of a yeoman farmer who came from a long line of yeoman farmers, and in other circumstances would have been expected to become a farmer himself. But instead Wykeham took a job as secretary to the constable at Winchester Castle, where his talents as a geometrician and architect earned him a reputation for good management of public building works. This in turn led to him entering Edward III’s civil service as a clerk.

A painting of William of Wykeham in ceremonial garb.
William of Wykeham, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Following the plague of 1361, which created yet more unplanned vacancies, Wykeham rose through the ranks with remarkable rapidity. By 1366 he had became Bishop of Winchester and a year later the Chancellor of England, a role which Ogilvie describes as the nearest equivalent to a Prime Minister at the time. Wykeham was a tough man in a brutal world, who was not above supplementing his now considerable wealth with income from brothels.

At this time, several decades into the Hundred Years War with France, feudal society in England was creaking and Roman Catholicism was facing a growing challenge from the Lollards, who pointedly had not been formally educated. Wykeham saw an urgent need for an educated clergy to help restore stability.

He believed that knowledge of grammar was ‘the foundation, gate and source of all liberal arts, without which they cannot be known, nor can anyone arrive at their pursuit.’ But he knew that many talented students could not afford to attend grammar school, and so were being excluded from playing a part in the upper echelons of society, to everyone’s detriment. He also wanted to give poor boys similar opportunities to his own. So he made plans for a school of an unprecedented scale and grandeur in his home county, to teach selected scholars at no expense to their parents. In 1394 Wykeham’s school opened – ‘Seint Marie College at Wynchester’, or Winchester College as it later became known.

A photograph of the college, among the trees of Winchester
Winchester College, seen from the Tower of Winchester Cathedral
(from Winchester College by J. D’E. Firth, 1949)

Winchester’s doors were open to seventy ‘poor and needy scholars, of good character and well conditioned, of gentlemanly habits, able for school, completely learned in reading, plain song and old Donatus’, Donatus being the author of the Ars Minor which had been the default grammar textbook since the 4th century. The typical ages of entry were between 8 and 12, but some talented 16 year olds were also accepted. By modern standards the school would have been extremely cramped, with pupils of all ages taught in a single schoolroom.

What counted as a ‘poor and needy’ scholar is still debated. Wykeham placed an upper means limit of £3. 6s. 8d on students, which was the same as the salary of the school’s usher, and so hardly a sign of poverty. Yet the nobility at the time educated their children at home and had little interest in schools, and it seems likely that lower middle class boys were the main beneficiaries of Wykeham’s scheme.

The college was set up as the exclusive feeder for New College, Oxford, which had been established by Wykeham in 1386. The extent to which Wykeham’s plan to repopulate the clergy with educated members of the poor was successful is not clear, but Winchester did inspire several college-school imitators, most notably ‘the College Roiall of oure Ladie of Eton beside Windesor’, founded in 1440 by Henry VI as a feeder for King’s College, Cambridge. Henry intended Eton to be ‘the lady mother and mistress of all other grammar schools’ and poached Winchester’s master and half the scholars to that end.

Eton described itself as a ‘grammar and public school’, and here we find the answer to the question we began with. ‘Public’ was a reference to its students who, like those at Winchester, came from far and wide, rather than from the local area as was normal at the time. Hence the early public schools were also boarding schools.

The value of independence

The curriculum taught at these schools was very similar, if not identical, to that taught in other grammar schools, consisting of the ancient Trivium of Grammar, Rhetoric and Dialectic. The schools also took on many of the religious characteristics of other medieval schools. The boys were tonsured clerks who, when not studying, spent much of their day in prayer. Wykeham’s endowment to the school included the stipulation that prayers would be sung for his soul after his death, in emulation of the benefactors of medieval chantry schools. Even the number of scholars at the school had religious significance, the 70 boys along with the master and usher representing the 72 apostles (excluding Judas).

Yet Winchester and Eton were quite deliberately called ‘colleges’, not schools, as a mark of their independence from the Church (not from the State, as independence implies today). Ogilvie described a medieval college as ‘a corporation of persons, associated for some specified purpose, not necessarily educational, and possessed of certain rights and privileges.’

The historian S. J. Curtis argued that, aside from their undoubted splendour, what set Winchester and Eton apart was their independent status as the first standalone grammar schools dedicated to education, unattached to religious institutions. Scholars were substituted for priests and study was substituted for religious services. In this respect, the public schools were pioneers of a separation of church and education which did not come to fruition until the 20th century. But in the meantime, this independence would be a crucial factor in their surviving the dissolution of the monasteries during the Reformation of the 16th century and the hostility of Henry VIII and his son Edward VI to anything associated with Catholicism.

Henry was reportedly intent on shutting the schools down but died before he could do anything about it. They were spared Edward’s axe when supporters of education in the House of Commons reclassified Oxford and Cambridge as non-church property. As feeders for the universities, Winchester and Eton were also exempted, in return for handing over their religious ornaments as ‘monuments of superstition’. Other public schools of the time were not so lucky.

From public to private

During this period, however, a brace of new independent schools were established, free of the whiff of Popery – such as St Paul’s (1509), Shrewsbury (1552), Christ’s Hospital (1552), Westminster (an ancient charity school refounded by Henry in 1540), Merchant Taylors’ (1561), Dulwich (1619), Christ’s Hospital (1552), Harrow (1572), Rugby (1567) and Uppingham (1584). These were followed in later centuries by Charterhouse (1611) and Wellington (1859) and would go on to develop into the prestigious fee-paying boarding and day schools we know today.

It is of course still possible for a few lucky and talented children with limited means to win a bursary or scholarship for one of these schools, but how did that become a secondary, rather than the primary, option? The answer can be found in Winchester College’s founding statutes. At the last minute, Wykeham inserted a clause allowing up to ten paid places for the sons of nobles. As mentioned above, the nobility were traditionally taught at home and had little interest in attending schools, so in practice these places were taken by members of the gentry and the up-and-coming middle classes.

Once established as a principle, the prospect of fees proved to be too attractive for later heads of the school to resist. Within a few years of Wykeham’s death, the master of Winchester was taking payment for private tutoring. By 1412, 80-100 ‘commoners’ (so called because they had access to the common facilities of the school) were paying between 9d and 16d a week to attend the school, leading to complaints of overcrowding.

Gradually, over the course of several centuries, paying students would come to outnumber those who couldn’t afford to pay, and the original ethos of the school was quietly forgotten. This process would be repeated in other public schools, most enthusiastically and thoroughly by Harrow, which established the precedent for others to follow.

This was all happening during the Enlightenment, when new knowledge in fields such as science, maths and philosophy was leading to a significant decline in demand for the classical Latin and Greek education of grammar schools. Paradoxically this seems to have lent classical education a perverse cachet in the eyes of the nobility, for rising above the teaching of useful, worldly knowledge. The upper classes became interested in grammar schools for the first time, naturally gravitating to their most splendid examples, and began to send their children to Winchester, Eton and the others I’ve mentioned. By the early 18th century the term ‘public school’ had acquired its modern use.

The public schools went on to play a central role in the British Empire and were the birthplace of a revived liberal education, but those are stories for other days. In the meantime, for a ‘personal and irreverent’ take on the history of the 19th and 20th century public school, I highly recommend Martin Stephen’s The English Public School (2018).

The cover of The English Public School showing a public school boy in uniform.
The English Public School by Martin Stephen


  1. The English Public School by Vivian Ogilvie (B. T. Batsford Ltd, 1957), chapters 2, 3, 5 and 7
  2. History of Education in Great Britain by S.J. Curtis (University Tutorial Press Ltd, 1963), chapters 1 and 11

Further reading

  1. Our history (Eton College)
  2. Britannica entry on the public school

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