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Private or public
Balgove
tobyaw
I attended Nottingham High School from the age of eight to eighteen. It is an independent fee-paying day school, founded in 1513, that occupies an entertainingly Victorian building near Nottingham city centre.

I was bemused when reading this week’s Mind Your Languages column in The Spectator, where, referring to Ed Balls, it said that he “…was born in Norwich and went to a public school, Nottingham High…”

I never thought of the school I went to as a “public school”. Sure, it is a private school, but my compadres had parents in business, trade, the professions, and the civil service. I associate public schools with being the traditional old boarding schools like Eton and Harrow, with pupils an order of magnitude posher than anyone who went anywhere near Nottingham. I guess this is just prejudice and ignorance on my part.

Looking at what defines a public school, one traditional definition is those schools covered by the Public Schools Act 1868: Charterhouse School, Eton College, Harrow School, Merchant Taylors' School, Rugby School, Shrewsbury School, St Paul’s School
Westminster School, and Winchester College. A more modern definition seems to include all the schools that are members of the Headmasters’ Conference; well over two-hundred schools would be classed as “public schools” by this definition, and would therefore include Nottingham High School.

How would you define a public school?

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HMC membership - otherwise there'd be no such thing as "a minor public school" (all those in the act being non-minor) and really, that's rather a useful phrase. ;-)

I have a number of exes who went to 'a minor public school' and I am familiar with schools in this area, and I would be comfortable saying that e.g. Abingdon School is a minor public school. It has something more 'public school' about it than other private schools around here - in teaching approach, in facilities and resources, in the behaviour of its pupils...

It just doesn’t feel right that a day school in a red-light area of Nottingham should be a public school! But then I suppose my view of what defines a public school is conditioned by years of exposure to negative portrayals of public schools in the media.

I tend to use the term "independent school" myself, because it carries less of the cultural baggage associated with the term "public school": weird traditions, class distinctions, boarding, corporal punishment, etc. Whereas the nearest we had to that sort of thing at NHS was a slightly baroque scheme of school ties.

Something I didn't realise until recently is that NHS was actually a grammar school for a fair chunk of the 20th century (from 1917 until 1945, according to Adam Thomas' book on the history of the school [1]). Although it was originally founded as the "Nottingham Free Grammar School" I'd assumed it had been a fee-paying private school for centuries.

I have mixed memories of NHS. I met a number of splendid people there (yourself included) and learned much that was valuable and important. But I also learned some stuff that has taken some effort to unlearn, and also met some deeply unpleasant people. I'm not entirely sure it was, on balance, a happy time.

[1] A W Thomas, A History of Nottingham High School 1513–1953, J. & H. Bell Ltd., Nottingham (1957)

Interesting about the grammar school status. I understand that many private schools were originally based on charitable funding; I wonder how recently the concept of fee-paying schools came about.

I look back with pleasant memories of my time at NHS, but I rather suspect I was just good at ignoring the people and behaviour that I didn’t like. The defining aspect of my schooling is that I am still friends with many of the people I was best friends with back then. In fact we’ll be away next weekend for our annual get-together (with Tim et al), this year renting a big house just over the border into England. It is a pleasure that connections made as a teenager can last a lifetime.

independent fee-paying ... school

That's the bit right there that defines a public school for me, as it's used in England and Wales. Independent school seems to be widely regarded as a synonym.

Actually I think private school is a better term, with public schools being the state system. This is the correct Scots usage, as well as that used by most of the rest of the world, but it's heavily overshadowed even within Scotland by people being more accustomed to hearing the English usage in the media.

I’d tend to prefer “private school” too. “Independent school” is a mouthful, and “public school” is loaded with so many negative associations by the media and politicians. Which is partly why I’m not so happy about finding out that I might have been educated in a public school!

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