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Private Schools

Updated on February 1, 2011

By the term "private schools" we usually understand those schools not provided for or maintained by public taxation. Some countries, particularly the Communist states, do not tolerate private schools at all; others, like the United States, tolerate and even approve them, but do not officially support them; and still others recognize the contribution of some private schools to the overall provision of education by giving partial support from taxation, which in certain cases, as in England and Wales, may amount to almost all of their running costs. Finally, we encounter a situation in which privately initiated schools, as in the Netherlands and Scotland, are entirely adopted as a financial responsibility by the government, thus becoming public parochial schools.

In England the term "public schools" originally referred to charitably founded schools for the Eoor, but by the end of the 18th century these had become the preserve of the middle classes. During the 19th century the old public schools and many new foundations with the same name were distinctly those that drew their pupils from a wide area and prepared them for upper- or middle-class careers. These schools were "private" and not "public" schools as the terms are customarily used in the United States, for they were not state supported.

The term "public schools" is now applied in Great Britain to those secondary schools which are controlled and administered in the public interest (not for private profit) by an independent governing body according to specified standards. The English public schools are therefore private schools within the scope of this article. (In British usage, the term "private schools" is largely replaced by "independent schools," a category that covers all schools receiving no tax support.)

It is clear that no single meaning can be attached to the term "private schools", and that the different interests of education are unevenly distributed between the public and private sectors from country to country and from time to time. In all non-Communist countries, however, private schools continue to exercise immense influence, and their impact is all the greater because the public providers of education seldom take full account of it. Neither public nor private schools In any one place can be properly understood unless attention is given to the way in which both elements have developed.

As the researches of anthropologists show, it is a characteristic of human society to concern itself with education, but large-scale formal provision for schooling by states or communities is a comparatively late development. Although education in the mother tongue, in ancestral crafts, in social membership, and in all the basic knowledge and values relevant to the social order has usually been minutely provided for and publicly regulated by social forces, all direct instruction has been traditionally undertaken in the home or through apprenticeship. In modern parlance, it has been and is a private responsibility under public supervision.

Formal schooling has consequently been regarded throughout history as one special kind of apprenticeship for restricted purposes. Priestly skills such as literacy, mathematics, and astronomy (for predicting the Nile floods and agriculture) were grudgingly taught in ancient Egypt to carefully selected initiates. In medieval Europe schooling produced "clerks"—that is, the clergy, the few learned professions, and the administrators. Education in the broad sense was provided by induction, habituation, and the ministrations of the church, while formal schooling was specialized and vocational. Until the beginning of the 20th century this concept of schooling probably prevailed in all the less industrialized countries.

In this setting it is easier to appreciate the continued vigor of private schooling, especially in its 19th century form of a superior initiation for leadership in government and commerce, as distinct from the elementary or practical instruction necessarily provided by taxation for the employees of the expanding industrial enterprises. There is no doubt that the importance of private schooling throughout the world has been greatly enhanced by the requirements of the Industrial Revolution, but to assess its claims and counterclaims it is necessary to consider its history.

Development of Private Schools

The only systematic instruction afforded in ancient Greece and Rome was the tuition given privately or in groups to rich men's sons by slaves or hired teachers, and private tutors have been employed into the 20th century. Below this level, private fee-paying education has traditionally provided the upper classes in Europe and in parts of the United States. The ambitions and claims of public education have obscured this (and the spread of public education in the United States has made the statement far less appropriate than it was in the 19th century), but the essence of nearly everyone's feeling about private education has been the idea that it usually confers privilege.

At the Renaissance the few universities of Europe were religious institutions under close episcopal supervision, granting degrees under license from the pope. Most of their students were boys between the ages of 12 and 18. At the latter age success brought the master of arts degree, which gave admittance to the higher faculties of divinity, law, and medicine. University tuition was far beyond most people's means, and the higher faculties were prohibitively expensive. Charitable clergy and pious benefactors had aided poor boys to secure training for the priesthood, which often lacked recruits despite its importance for careers, but the most thoroughgoing provision for what would now be called secondary education was separately initiated by the Jesuits in their colleges during the 17th century, especially in France. In less than 50 years these colleges excelled the universities themselves in quality and had covered France with a highly efficient and inexpensive system of secondary schools. Some city corporations had already begun to establish secondary schools of their own, but they often consented to turn over their public establishments to the Jesuits or to other religious orders. Roman Catholic pupils from Protestant countries like England and some German states came secretly as boarders to Jesuit colleges in France and Belgium; conversely, Calvinists in Switzerland and, for a time, in France set up their own comparable colleges. All of these schools were both privileged in the sense of leading to higher careers and special in the sense of defending a particular religious faith.

In England, too, the so-called dissenting academies in the 18th century were brought to great distinction by Protestant sects disagreeing with the Church of England. They included more modern and practical subjects in their curriculum than either the universities or the older schools. Some of the latter were the exclusive public schools ; others were the grammar or Latin schools long established in towns by prosperous citizens. Thus a desire for independent schools was in some sectors felt to combine the claims of religious independence and of modernity against the traditionally approved schools. Freedom of parental choice on practical grounds was associated with freedom of conscience.

After the Reformation, Protestant communities in Scandinavia, northern Germany, Scotland, and elsewhere set up publicly provided elementary schools to wean children from Catholicism by teaching them to read the Scriptures and learn a new way of life. Also for religious reasons and because of the absence of an established educative society, the settlers in New England became committed at an early date to formal public education for all under local or community auspices. But the first large-scale plans for publicly controlled education followed the French Revolution (1789). Although these plans were not brought to full fruition in France until the 1880's, the claim that the state had a license to teach was a revolutionary challenge to the teaching church. It at least implied a wide public provision for all children, both to perfect them and to furnish skilled manpower. After the Napoleonic Wars many homogeneous states followed the example of Denmark (1814) in establishing universal and compulsory public elementary education systems. France, Prussia, and other countries also set about founding modern industrialized states on the basis of national secondary schools, which would provide a new learning and administration. In countries with mixed faiths, discordant political convictions, or a lesser degree of educational enterprise, however, private secondary schools were esteemed as well or instead of public ones.

The outstanding example of this tendency was England. By the beginning of the 19th century the ancient public schools and the urban grammar schools, like the two old universities of Oxford and Cambridge, had failed to keep up with the times. For a while it seemed that the dissenting academies might pioneer a nationwide growth of local higher schools, but the improvement of roads, the development of the railways, the accumulation of industrial wealth, and the growth of the British Empire contributed instead to a demand for new "public" boarding schools. These were as private and exclusive as the old ones. In 1828, when Thomas Arnold became headmaster of Rugby, there were only 123 boys in the school, and the ancient foundations of Charterhouse, Harrow, Shrewsbury, Westminster, and Winchester had fewer than 500 boys between them. Arnold's reforms and enterprise in the 1830's prompted the founding of new public schools at Cheltenham (1841), Marlborough (1843), Rossall (1844), and Wellington (1853), among others. Most were Anglican in faith, but other religious views also were propagated. Existing boarding schools were reformed and enlarged, and some local grammar schools established boarding houses to accommodate a nationally recruited student body.

For Arnold, education must be based essentially on Christian training of- character and liberal instruction. The latter, though predominantly classical, seemed progressive for his times. Elsewhere the independence of public schools led to the inclusion of new subjects for study long before the universities were ready to respect them. Boys were taught between the ages of about 13 and 18, and in the majority of cases they did not go on to the universities but directly into careers. Thus in Britain and in British settlements the boarding school must be considered an influence independent of the university rather than uniquely preparatory to it, at any rate until the 1920's or 1930's. The main emphasis was not primarily on learning, despite the high quality of attainment, so much as on character, group loyalty, and a sense of governing responsibility.

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