Bullying, Starvation and Death in 19th Century Public and Boarding Schools

There’s a strong mood in the Labour party for the abolition of the public schools. Unlike in America, where the public schools are the state schools, the term over this side of the Atlantic mean the network of extremely expensive private schools educating the children of the aristocracy and the upper middle classes. It’s from them and their ethos that elite derive some of their power and sense of entitlement through the social solidarity and networks these schools provide. Private Eye in its review of a book on Eton in the 1980s commented acidly on a statement by one former Eton schoolboy, now an Anglican bishop, that looking at the numbers of other old Etonians now in leading positions in the government, civil service and society, he felt the whole world was Eton. Another said that if he found out a man hadn’t been to Eton, he wasn’t sure why, but for some reason he thought less of him.

But it wasn’t always like this. Before Matthew Arnold turned up at Rugby in the 1840s, the Public Schools had a very poor reputation. They were notorious for a very narrow curriculum that concentrated almost exclusively on the classics, vicious bullying and vain attempts to keep order among their charges through sadistic flogging. As well as immorality.

I found these passages, describing the abysmally low standards in them in Andrina Stiles, Religion, Society and Reform 1800 1914 (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1995).

Some of the endowed schools had begun to take boarders quite early on. Rugby for instance, which had originally been founded in the sixteenth century as a free grammar school for local boys, evolved in this way into the 19th century public school. Conditions before 1840 in public schools left much to be desired. A narrow classical curriculum, poor housing and food, harsh discipline and a low moral tone characterised life there. Violence and bullying were common. By the middle of the century the situation was improving and public school values were changing, for several reasons. One of these was the arrival of Thomas Arnold at Rugby in 1829.

(p. 74).

Nevertheless there was still disquiet about the narrow curriculum of the public schools a generation later in 1861:

No Latin or Greek may make Mast Jack a dull boy, but Latin and Greek without anything else go far towards making him a very dullard. Parents are beginning to feel this and to ask whether a skinful of classical knowledge with a little birching thrown in for nothing is worth the two hundred a year the pay for a boy at Eton.

A Royal Commission under Lord Clarendon was appointed to examine the revenues, management and curriculum in the nine chief public schools. Its report in 1864 was more favourable than might have been expected. It agreed though that there was still an undue emphasis on the classics and added that the schools ‘are in different degrees too indulgent to idleness, or struggle ineffectually with it, and consequently send out a large proportion of men of idle habits and empty uncultivated minds’. A number of reforms were suggested and some of these, mostly organisational ones, were incorporated in the Public Schools Act of 1868. The effects were limited for the schools were not made subject to government inspection and each remained virtually independent. As for broadening the curriculum, little was done.

(p. 75).

But if standards in the public schools were low, those in the middle class private schools were potentially lethal.

Many parents wishing to protect their boys from the dangers of the public school, or not able to afford the fees to send them there, turned to private boarding schools. These varied widely in competence, were often quite small, and had a more liberal curriculum than the public or grammar schools. The pupils were usually better supervised and better housed than in the public schools, though this was not always the case and some private schools were very badly run, with a high death rate among the pupils from disease, malnutrition and general neglect.

(p. 76).

With this history, it’s amazing that the private sector still has the social cachet to demand respect, and old Etonians like David Cameron and Boris Johnson hold them up for emulation from the state sector. One of those two charmers declared that they’d like every school to be like Eton. This was in a speech promising further privatisation of state education. Well, every school probably could become like Eton, if it had the amount of money spent on it Eton has from the fees it charges elite parents. But as its the state sector, they get nowhere near the funding and resources they need and deserve. If we really want to create a strong state education system that provides a good schooling for everyone, then the myth of private school excellence has to be disproven and their privileged place removed even if the schools themselves aren’t abolished.

 

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