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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
public school

The first pitfall for anyone trying to understand the British system of *education is that 'public school' and 'private school' mean the same thing, both referring to fee-paying establishments. By contrast a school providing a free education is called a *state school or a maintained school. The exception, as so often in British life, is in Scotland where the term public school means what it says – a free state school, open to all.

The confusion results from a gradual development among the ancient *grammar schools, which offered free education and were known for that reason as public schools. Over the centuries several of the best-known began taking fee-paying pupils in addition to the central core of scholarship boys for whom they had been founded. An act of 1867 'for the better government of certain public schools' specifically concerned itself with Eton, Winchester, Westminster, Harrow, Rugby, Charterhouse and Shrewsbury. The name stuck, and for many years the act gave these seven a special status among public schools.

By then these ancient establishments had already pioneered the system which came to be considered characteristic of a public school – that of the older boys being responsible for much of the administration and discipline (as seen in *Tom Brown's Schooldays), including ritualized canings administered by prefects. This boys' own culture resulted in an emphasis on manliness and skill at games, together with a certain distrust of the intellect – all qualities which came to be associated with a public-school education. The success of these schools led to a harmful division within British education, and consequently within the community. The richer classes increasingly sent their children to public schools, where they acquired recognizable characteristics of accent and behaviour, while everyone else was educated in state schools.

In spite of very high fees, the pressure on the limited places at the best public schools is still such that children are often put down for a place at birth. This does not exempt them from a competitive examination at 12 or 13 (the Common Entrance), and most are sent from the age of about eight to fee-paying schools which specialize in preparing children for this test (preparatory or prep schools). From the late 19C increasing numbers of public schools for girls were founded, and many boys' public schools are now coeducational in the sixth form (16–18). The number of public schools was much increased in the decades afer World War II, when many of the leading grammar schools chose to go private rather than become *comprehensives.

Schools in the private sector, from the nursery level upwards, now call themselves independent rather than 'public' or 'private', though the term has not yet become widely used.

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