A history of private schools and reform

by David Kynaston

1382: Founding of Winchester College, aiming to educate ‘many poor scholars intent on school studies suffering from want of money and poverty’.

1440: Founding of Eton College, aiming to provide a free education for 70 poor boys.

1509: Founding of St Paul’s School, free to all.

1515: Founding of Manchester Grammar School, free to all.

1552: Founding of Christ’s Hospital School, today the biggest private school bursary provider for pupils.

1600-1800: Increasing dominance of fee-payers at these and other similarly founded schools (including Harrow, Charterhouse, Rugby, Shrewsbury and Merchant Taylors’).

1857: Publication of Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, which presents a morally uplifting picture of boarding school life.

1861: Clarendon Commission set up to investigate nine leading schools following complaints about the finances and management of Eton College.

The schools investigated were Eton, Charterhouse, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Westminster, Winchester, St Paul’s and Merchant Taylors’.

1868: Public Schools Act passed as a result of the Clarendon Commission, leading to new governance for seven of the nine schools (St Paul’s and Merchant Taylors’ successfully argue they are private schools, not public schools).

Importantly, the Act removes the schools from the direct jurisdiction of the government, church or Crown, and endowments are changed so that scholarships are awarded not to local boys but on a national competitive basis. This favours children who were either privately tutored or from fee-paying prep schools.

1868: Endowed Schools Act, which was acting on the Taunton Commission (1864-8), stratifies education into schools suitable for different “kinds” of pupils.

Public schools provide a classical education for pupils preparing for university; grammar schools are day schools to age 16; and third-grade schools send children into employment at 14.

The Act also establishes the fee-paying academic grammar school for middle classes.

1869: Start of the Headmasters’ Conference (HMC), soon representing all the top public schools, now with over 200 members.

1870-1900: Increased growth of preparatory (prep) schools for junior pupils, to complement the expanding ‘public school movement’.

1911: 113 Old Etonians are in the House of Commons.

1944: Butler’s Education Act avoids the public school issue, which is siphoned off to the Fleming Committee (1942-4).

Its report recommends that public schools open up to one-quarter of their places to non-fee-payers, but only on a voluntary basis, and paid for by a mixture of central and local government funding.

There is only minimal implementation, with little enthusiasm shown by the schools, the Ministry of Education, local authorities or working-class parents.

1945-51: Clement Attlee’s otherwise radical Labour government does not tackle the issue (with Attlee regarded as loyal to his old school, Haileybury) and instead pins its hopes on making the state sector as good as the private.

1956: Publication of The Future of Socialism by Anthony Crosland, declaring fee-paying schools as a ‘much more glaring injustice’ than grammar schools.

1965: Crosland becomes Education Secretary and sets up the Public Schools Commission (PSC).

1968: PSC issues a weak report, making even less impact than Fleming; a cartoon in the Guardian anticipates no change to the situation by 2068.

1976: Labour abolishes direct grant schools; most (118 out of 171) go private.

1980-98: Margaret Thatcher’s government introduces Assisted Places Scheme, which is regarded as being gamed by the middle class before being abolished by New Labour.

2006: Private schools have to prove their wider public benefit to keep their charitable status under new provisions in the Charities Act (see 2011).

2010: David Cameron becomes first Old Etonian PM (but not the first privately educated, since Tony Blair also went to private school in Scotland) since 1964; he, George Osborne (St Paul’s) and Nick Clegg (Westminster) lead government.

2011: The independent schools sector wins a legal battle with the Charities Commission about the 2006 Charities Act.

The High Court tribunal rules it is not for the Charity Commission or the courts to impose their own idea on a school what is for the “public benefit” to qualify for charitable status.

In other words private schools are able to decide, within the framework of the law, whether they are meeting their charitable obligations.

But the tribunal confirms that private schools must demonstrate a wider public benefit and must provide “more than a token benefit” to the poor.

2016: Pupil-teacher ratio at private schools drops down to 8.6 to 1, compared to more than 17 to 1 in state sector.

2017: Labour proposes to impose VAT on school fees but loses the election.

2019: The Scottish National Party in government confirm private schools in Scotland will be taxed full business rates from 2020, a move which is delayed due to coronavirus.

See the News log for rolling headlines in 2020-21.