English public schools and the old boys’ network

English public schools–now known as bastions of privilege–started out as philanthropic schools to educate the poor. Some of them date back to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

By “the poor,” of course, the schools and their founders meant poor boys, and the sons of the rich were specifically excluded from some. Excluding girls was such a given that I doubt anyone thought to mention it.

The term public school first appears in England in 1580 (or in the eighteenth century, depending on who you want to believe). The public part meant that they benefited the public, unlike the private school, whose profit went to the owner.

These were grammar schools. As far as I’ve been able to untangle this mess, that means they taught Latin and Greek, with a heavy emphasis on the classics. When Ben Jonson wrote about Shakespeare that he had “small Latin and less Greek,” he was using those as the measure of a well-educated man. And although the man part isn’t a quote, it’s very much what he was talking about.

Irrelevant photo: A boat on the beach on Iona. With a person who’s wandering off the other way because my every moment is so fascinating.

According the the Encyclopedia Britannica (you’ll find the link in the next paragraph), the emphasis on the Greek and Roman classics continued well into the 20th century. “Organized games, in contrast, were a late development, and, before their introduction, disorderly conduct was intermittently considerable, particularly in the early 19th century. When the demand for men to administer the British Empire led to scores of new foundations during the 19th century, however, the schools tended to adopt the more disciplined, duty-bound, and athletic model.”

But we’ve gotten ahead of our timeline. The schools were good–or at least people thought they were good–and as a result, the Encyclopedia Britannica says, “From about the 17th century the upper classes took increasing advantage of the tuition [meaning teaching, not the money parents paid for their darlings to be taught] afforded by these foundations. As pupils paying the market rate became more numerous, the schools were increasingly transformed into boarding establishments.”  

In other words, the rich muscled their way in and even before anyone had time to introduce standardized tests to prove that this was all wondrous, the sons of the rich outnumbered the sons of the poor.

Since the Britannica is impressive and high-end and its editors and contributors probably knows both Latin and Greek (ancient, of course, not modern), it manages to convince a tilted A to cozy up to the second E in the word encyclopedia, which makes it look (a) like a single letter and (b) much classier than a bare nekked E would, although it adds fuck all in the way of content. That’s very much in keeping with our topic today and we’re going to do without the A, thanks, partly because I don’t have the patience to go searching for a useless character in the depths of my word processing program and partly because I enjoy small and pointless exercises in the art of spite.

In case you’ve ever wondered (and I did), how you pronounce that combination of A and E, it’s pronounced the same way it would be if the A had not only broken up with the E but moved all its stuff out in the middle of the night and left no note and not even a forwarding address. All if does is make the person who uses it look like he or she knows something other people don’t.

Which may or may not be the reason for all that Latin and Greek.

Where were we? Charitable schools to educate people of “humble backgrounds” being taken over by the upper class because they were too good to waste on the humble: As time went on, the schools’ role became to prepare boys for Cambridge and Oxford universities–and also for public service, giving another meaning to the word public.

Ages ago, I read that they were also called public schools because that contrasted with the tradition of upper-class boys being educated at home, by a tutor, but I can’t find any confirmation of that online.

In the nineteenth century, a number of girls’ public schools were established. I haven’t found a date for the earliest ones.

Where did all this lead? As the Britannica so clunkily puts it, “The impact of the public schools in Britain was historically immense. Perhaps in no other post-Renaissance country did an ethos directly and concentratedly inculcated in so few citizens exercise such influence nationally—and internationally, given the crucial role of the public school ethos in helping Britain build its empire. The ethos in question was less an academic one than a class-conscious code of behaviour, speech, and appearance. It set the standard for conduct in the life of officialdom in Britain from the early 19th century to the mid-20th.”

I’ll try a very (very) loose translation of that since, many an eye will have bounced right over it without taking much in: The schools created a set of standards by which members of the upper class could recognize each other and judge each other–and then judge people from other classes and cultures to be less worthy of their spot on the earth, given that those others had so clearly failed to be like those glorious, conforming, upper-class English public-school graduates.


Public schools fed their graduates into government and into the varied mechanisms that ran the British Empire. They were a small group and hugely influential, and who you knew mattered. So did who you were, meaning who your family was. 

The old boys’ network? This is where the phrase originated. The old boys were the graduates of these elite schools, and there’s something creepy–at least to my ear–about it when you really hear the word boys in the phrase. These are grown men who don’t seem to have ever quite gotten away from that stage of their lives.   

According to the BBC, by 2017, only 1% of the public schools’ students paid no tuition, which in 2015 averaged £13,194 a year. If a kid boards there, that goes up to £30,369.

The country’s average income in 2015 was in the neighborhood of £27,456. So yeah, she said with a vague gesture in the direction of British understatement, these schools are on the expensive side.  I’ll admit that averages are misleading, since they’re heavily influenced by extreme numbers, but never mind. An average is enough to give us a general idea of the contrast.

So public schools have ended up as places to educate the sons (and now also the daughters) of the rich, and they don’t need to exclude the poor because the poor, the average, and the considerably above average can’t afford them anyway. A token few are stirred through in roughly the proportion of salt to broth, but unlike salt they don’t seem to change the flavor much.

The schools are still treated as charitable institutions, which earns them millions of pounds a year in tax breaks. Or possibly billions. It depends whose statistics you like. I suspect the difference depends on what tax breaks you include in your calculations. Can we just say it’s a lot of money and consider that close enough?

For a while, the government made small, squeaky noises about taking away their tax breaks unless public schools made some gestures in the direction of helping state schools (which, just to confuse the issue, are what Americans would call public schools, since they’re paid for and used by the public, unlike English public schools, which are private; are you still with me here?). Then, oddly enough, they dropped the whole thing.

The continuing influence of public school graduates wouldn’t have had anything to do with that.

A recent review of a book on the public schools mentions research showing that the standard of teaching is “not significantly higher than in the state sector: parents ‘are really paying for smaller classes . . . and a place in the privilege network.’ ”

The book comes with the perfectly neutral title of Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain and sounds like a well-researched call for their abolition, covering everything from child abuse to money laundering (no, I don’t know any details, but I wish I did) to their role in educating the children of oligarchs.

According to the Times, the students of nine public schools are 94 times more likely to reach “the top” than anyone else. Analysis of the past 125 years of Who’s Who, which lists the most prominent politicians, lawyers, business leaders and civil servants in the UK, found that one in eight entrants in recent editions comes from one of the nine [elite public] schools. This compares with one in five in the 1892 edition.

Yes, friends, it’s another example of human progress, which as a child of the 50s I was taught to believe in. Not specifically. It was so much part of my teachers’ assumptions that no one thought to separate it out as something that needed teaching. Every day in every way, the world was becoming a better place.

Haven’t you noticed?

53 thoughts on “English public schools and the old boys’ network

  1. Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain – sounds about right. These children are kept apart from the rest of society and have little idea of “ordinary” people’s lives. I once taught degree students at at Kings’ College London and saw at first hand how cosseted these kids were – one perfectly pleasant lad boasted how he’d met a member of the working class as he’d gone to tea with his grandfather as a child and his grandfather had been a coal miner. At the time I thought “They kids will go on to run is country as lawyers, MPs and and so on and they just don’t have a clue”! I could go on but I think that will just be ranting.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. But a public schoolboy/girl from here would be able to tell you that the æ is known as a ligature – and is known as æsc or ash. In old English, it is pronounced like the ‘a’ in bat, but in Danish and Norwegian where it’s an actual letter of the alphabet, it has several different pronunciations depending on the words around it. But I digress, it adds nothing to the word Encyclopaedia other than an alternative and useless pronunciation that would make one sound pretentious/thick if one used it, however, as the E.B was first published in 1768 when the æ was in full use it’s a fun part of our language history I suppose. By the by, the E.Brittanica was founded by 2 Scottish gentlemen, neither of who had formal education. Love your post :)

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Sorry, I was going to go on to say that, for all its serious problems, the world IS a better place. Just look at how we value individuals now – most of us. Obviously, the world has a way to go to catch up… Re education, it would certainly be good if every country was a true meritocracy – though that is by its nature not ‘fair’. Frankly, the crass hooray henry with his/her privileged view is just as irritating as the bloke with a chip on his shoulder declaiming his ‘working class’ origins from the pages of the Guardian; both blinkered, but neither is to blame. Most people are not like that, though…give it time…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Living now in Hartford, Connecticut, I am all too familiar with the ‘Æ’ since we are the headquarters city of Ætna – They prefer Etna as a pronunciation, but who cares, they were just gobbled-up by CVS – the corner drugstore chain that made more money stealing our coPays – whole ‘nother story – than filling our prescriptions. Led by a group of men, educated, no doubt, in our private (your public) schools.

    There was an article about three weeks ago titled “Monetising the Poor” which highlighted hedge funds that invest in payday loans and other high interest short term loans to people of very sparse means, with rates as high as 33%.

    This is the stuff these old boys dream up. The only good thing about my public education is that I didn’t have to associate with the younger versions of those old boys.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I entirely agree with you, Ellen. It may be a better place when it comes to medical and scientific breakthroughs but there are still far too many people who lord it over the rest of us and have the greedy, selfish attitudes of most in the present government (and many in the other parties too). The appalling divisions created by the Tories and the imposition of hostile environments upon the amazing people who came over on Windrush and saved our bacon, the disabled, the working poor, the unemployed is unconscionable. Lack of a decent education in recent decades hasn’t helped. The nastiness of some people and the bullying is way out of control. (Can you tell I’ve had a bad week?!)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh dear, mea culpa. I am white, English , and went to public school. I am also POSH , if you use the definition ( discredited ) Port Out Starboard Home , having made the trip a few times by P&O. I now learn that I have ruined Britain. It is rather a lot for one chap to be accused of?

    Liked by 2 people

    • All on your own? You’re amazing. I’d have thought you needed help. But what’s this about Port Out Starboard Home? I understand that there’s a ferry involved in this somewhere, but after that I have no idea what’s going on.

      Liked by 1 person

      • In the days before climate change could be kept at bay by universal air conditioning it was necessary to take a few precautions. Travelling to India by “ferry” it was expedient to have a cabin on the left (port) side of the ship going from uk to India since the sun beat down on the right ( starboard) side of the ship. The reverse was true on the return journey, hence POSH.The very definition of hell was travelling down the Red Sea with a following wind. Not only did the smoke hang round the ship but the heat was intense. I shall say no more for fear of being blamed for all the ills of the subcontinent and beyond.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I had no idea–as you can tell from my comment about ferries. I never stopped to wonder where the word posh came from anymore than I asked myself where the word word came from. Thank you for that.


  7. I have mixed emotions on this, Ellen. I love everything you say, nod my head in agreement, yet want to add a comment. Many of the children I teach have parents who teach at both public school and elite private school. Honestly, the teachers from the private boarding schools are always the most caring, happy, engaging (the list goes on). They are not the same as public school teachers who are kind and nice, yet seem more task oriented than child oriented. Public schools are driven by testing, and that can suck the life out of a teacher and a child. Private schools thrive on the passion of learning, and that shows in teachers and students. This is my observation after only 35 years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do agree about testing. It’s a disease afflicting both the US and the UK. My wholly unscientific obsevation is that they’re driving the best teachers out of teaching–and I’m sure many who aren’t the best–by the rigidity they’re introducing and the pressure they’re putting on them. Not to mention the overwhelming and unproductive paperwork. The comment comparing the teaching in public (as in private) and state (as in public) schools applied to British schools–and it wasn’t mine but lifted from I no longer remember where. I hope I made it clear that I was only channeling it but I write most of these posts long enough before they go live that I can’t remember anymore. I’m not close enough to either school system to have my own opinion on the merits and problems in them. Thanks for adding yours.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Very good, Ellen. I taught for 2 years in a girls’ boarding school in Scotland, teaching mostly titled young women. Some parents acknowledged that the academic achievements were indeed better in the local state school, but were paying (through the nose, I might add) for their daughters to lose too broad a Scottish accent and to mix and meet with other private school educated children, which would help them all get better jobs, and marriage partners. This was particularly true of the less able girls who would be spoon-fed through their examinations. In one of my first lessons, girls asked what they should write in their journals to learn for the next lesson, being accustomed to have notes dictated and were shocked when I said I would teach them how to make notes so that they could make their own decisions. I was even reprimanded by my Head of Department for encouraging them to make their own interpretations of key speeches in Shakespeare plays, as she believed it was my job to tell them what they meant; I thought my job was to teach them how to make such interpretations, and then test them against others’ interpretations. I returned to the state sector as soon as possible!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I like the penultimate sentence. It reminds me of the Yugoslav film from the happy times, Do You Remember, Dolly Bell by Emir Kusturica, and the mantra of the main character, a boy: “Every day in every aspect I improve more and more.” I know you like languages, so maybe you or a reader of yours might appreciate the original. I know it by heart: “Svakog dana u svakom pogledu sve više napredujem.”

    I wish you a calm summer.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I suppose the public schools are still disproportionately represented at the top universities as well, thus allowing for the rise to the top? “The rich get rich and the poor get children” (Ain’t We Got Fun). Not a lot of change since the 1920’s

    Liked by 1 person

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