Public school (United Kingdom)

type of independent school in England and Wales
(Redirected from British public school)

In the United Kingdom, public schools are independent fee-paying schools like Eton College. By "independent" is meant fee-paying, and therefore not run by the public authorities. They are called 'public' because they accept students from anywhere – not just people living nearby in the school area. Some are boarding schools, where students can sleep and live at school during the school term. The public schools have an association called the Headmasers' and Headmistresses' Conference. Junior schools which prepare children for entry into public schools are called Preparatory schools ('prep' schools).

The term "public school", for what are actually privately owned schools,[1] is historical. It dates from the UK Public Schools Act 1868 which set the framework for seven leading English boys' schools, which were:

To these should be added other fee-paying schools which have first-class reputations. These would include:



Others of note include Fettes College in Edinburgh, which is a co-educational day school. This is very unusual for a public school. Gordonstoun is an independent public school in Moray, Scotland. It is where King Charles III was educated. It is a co-educational residential school.

The term "public school" in Scotland is traditionally used for state schools.



English public schools have a very good record of getting their pupils into elite universities, such as Cambridge and Oxford. They educate the sons and daughters of the British upper and upper-middle classes. In particular, the sons of officers and senior administrators of the British Empire were educated in England while their parents were on overseas postings. In 2010, over half of Cabinet Ministers had been educated at public schools. In 2018, annual fees at Eton were up to £48,500 for boarders. Therefore, although some scholarships are available, most students come from wealthy families.

Three twenty-first century Prime Ministers, Tony Blair, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, were educated at public schools, as were a high proportion of those in previous centuries. Margaret Thatcher was educated at a grammar school, but one with Academy status.

The leading public schools are challenged only by Manchester Grammar School,[2] which was for many years the leading state-funded grammar school.[3] It is now a fee-paying independent school. It made this change when the Labour government in 1976 chose to abolish the Direct Grant System. This would have given the government powers to change the school in ways with which it did not agree.

Girls' schools


Public schools for girls in England have a similar unofficial ranking, though more of them are day schools. The best-known girls public school is Cheltenham Ladies' College. The Girls' Schools Association (GSA) is the body for independent girls' schools. It has over a hundred schools as members. The GSA is a member of the Independent Schools Council.[4]

First, an historical note. Up to and including the 19th century girls from "good families" were educated at home by governesses and tutors. This applies very widely across the world, not just in England. The other controversial issue is whether girls should be educated with boys or not. Here the United States is one extreme and Muslim countries the other extreme. Even in England, co-education is almost universal at primary level, but is not common at secondary level, except in the state education sector.[5]

Another point of difference in England is that girls from wealthy families are more likely to be educated abroad than are boys. Expensive independent schools in French-speaking Switzerland are often chosen. It has not gone unnoticed that, by having such options, the wealthy give their children advantages which the children of ordinary people never get.

Well-known girls' public schools are:


  1. Though privately owned, they are usually not owned by individual people, but by foundations or by companies working for the public good rather than profit.
  2. Graham J.A. and Phythian B.A. (eds) 1965. The Manchester Grammar School 1515–1965. Manchester University Press, 1965
  3. "Results - The Manchester Grammar School". Retrieved 2018-05-21.
  4. Girls Schools Association:
  5. Goodman, Joyce; James C. Albisetti J.C. & and Rogers R. (eds) 2010. Girls' secondary education in the western world: from the 18th to the 20th century. Palgrave Macmillan.