Were public schools popular in the Victorian era?

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Just a note of clarification for our readers on both sides of the Atlantic – by Public schools in the UK, we mean private schools where fees had to be paid.

The Definition of a public school

Eton, Harrow, Westminster, Rugby, Winchester, Charterhouse, and Shrewsbury, and two London day schools, St. Pauls and Merchant Taylors's, were defined as "Public Schools" in the 1860s by the educational Clarendon commission. They were maintained by private endowment and not operated for profit. The Taunton commission, which found that only 8% of male children were getting any sort of secondary education, later included all endowed secondary schools into their calculations, and attempted both to redistribute endowments and to create uniform statutes in order to maintain standards of teaching, discipline, and organization. The so-called Public Schools had changed so much since their founding that they were unrecognizable by the Victorian age.

By the time Queen Victoria first came to the throne schools were simply for the rich and so the majority of children never went to school and couldn’t read or write. Children of the rich were usually taught at home by a governess until they were 10, and then the boys would go onto a Public school such as Winchester or Eton and the girls would continue with a governess at home.

Winchester College was the earliest public school, founded in 1382 with the College of St Mary at Eton, in 1440. There was a flurry of new public schools in the 19th century, reflecting the aspirations of the middle classes to achieve the status of the nobility and gentry. They emphasized the importance of sportsmanship and of a brand of Christianity that produced self‐confident young men ready to become leaders destined for the army or the civil service, at home or in the Empire. Critics of public schools have said that these institutations did a bad job of preparing their boys for the economic, political, and technological challenges facing contemporary England and blame the Public Schools for much of England's subsequent economic and political decline.

Rugby, with its emphasis on modernising endowments, making scholarships competitive, providing a non-classical education as an alternative to the traditional one that emphasized Greek and Latin and also was one of the first to establish house systems, to a stress school spirit, with a strong emphasis on football and cricket as a means of improving character, became a model for other Victorian public schools. Much of the so called education was of the nature of forced inculcation of knowledge, often without understanding. The whole educational process was designed to mould the student into a young Christian Gentleman. Most Students from these elite schools continued to Oxford and Cambridge, and graduates of those Universities did, and continue to, dominate the British political and business elite.

Some boys were sent off to school as early as the age of 5 and often had only known life in the nursery with their sisters. According to much of the literature of the time, these schools could be difficult places to survive with hard beds, tellings off, bullying, homesickness, spartan conditions and much punishment including flogging for minor misdemeanours. Many of the schoolmasters were cruel, mentally unstable and self-righteous and would think that cruelness towards their pupils was their duty. Often the threat from other boys at public school could be even worse for the sensitive child than the threat from teachers.

The young pupil would try to endure these hardships without showing his feelings, striving to be accepted among his peers.

All in all public schools were well used by the aspiring middle classes who generation after generation used them to educate their children. However many of these ex pupils would say that they had a terrible time at school and as such you could say these institutions could be described as character building or character crushing, depending on the pupil.

Non-public schools in Victorian Britain

Let’s briefly discuss the education of the poor in the Victorian era, those that had no chance of entering a public school. In the Victorian era the chances for an illiterate boy or girl were slim so a number of types of day schools were established for the poor including the Ragged Schools, Parish Schools and Church.

Ragged schools originated in the Sunday School founded in 1780 by Robert Raikes in Gloucester, who taught children to read so that they could read the Bible. By 1870 there were 250 Ragged Schools in London and over 100 in the provinces.

Another form of education at the time was an apprenticeship so that for a fixed term, usually seven years, a master or mistress of a trade would train a young person so that he could earn his living at that trade. The master kept the apprentice in board, lodging and clothes, but had no duty to pay him. Poor masters could profit from the unpaid labour of children taken from the parish workhouse.

Parish workhouses were supposed to provide education for the children in their care whom they had not managed to apprentice out.

The Church of England and the non‐conformist movement provided elementary education, and both adopted a system whereby the brightest pupil taught what he had learned to a group of other pupils, each of whom in turn passed it on, and so on. The system was replaced by properly trained pupil‐teachers in 1846.


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