British Public School system

English Public Schools

Time and Place: English Public Schools
Before and After World War I

Although Mr. Chips's Brookfield is a fictional place, it is based on real English public schools, such as Eton and Harrow, which have been enormously influential in England for hundreds of years. ("Public" schools are actually what Americans would call private schools, and serve chiefly upper-class and well-to-do boys, and, more recently, girls.) The culture that has grown up around the English public school system is mythic. Its values, ideals, and traditions have been embraced, envied, admired, and copied in much of the world - although its elitism and sometime cruelty have also been detested and derided.

In his 1977 book, The World of the Public School, George MacDonald Fraser writes, "For better or worse, the public schools have had a hold on Britain for close to two centuries. They have trained most of the men and many of the women who run the British government, armed forces, civil service, church and commerce. They have influenced every aspect of Britain's national life - and, through the old Empire, a sizeable part of the world as well."

By 1880, the year Chips comes to Brookfield, public schools were firmly established as the main system for educating upper-class boys. These kinds of schools were chiefly boarding schools, and each had its own traditions, slang, rituals, and unwritten codes to which its boys adhered religiously. According to historian Vivian Ogilvie in his book, The English Public School, public schools of the higher rank (such as Eton and Harrow), were quite similar in that all

had developed a set of characteristics which were rapidly vested with an aura of antiquity. There was a system of boarding houses, run by masters. There was the system of prefects and fags. The headmaster and house masters ruled through their prefects and, by treating them as responsible semi-adults, gave them a useful preparation for manhood. The organization of a school's corporate life and the maintenance of discipline outside school hours by the older boys, with a minimum of interference from the master, came to be regarded as an essential and differentiating characteristic of the Public School.

It is this system of hierarchies that Mr. Chips illustrates so well. The "fagging" system, in which younger boys must do older boys' bidding, was widely established and seen as a means of instilling group conformity and loyalty. Initiation rites, such as the "barreling" in the film, and the general bullying of weaker boys by older or stronger boys were seen as preparing boys for manhood and leadership. (A headmaster of this era at Winchester, the oldest English public school, once said about this system, "I hardly know which is most useful - the habit of obedience which it requires from the lower boys or the exercise of authority on the part of the higher ones. It appears to me to be admirable on both sides.")

The opening of the film illustrates how completely this system was entrenched when Rivers, an older boy, is showing Chips around the school. Approached by his "fag, " Rivers says, "Henshaw, you little oik, you burnt my toast again this morning!" As the boy leaves, promising it will never happen again, Rivers says pompously to Chips, "The standard of fagging this year is deplorable." Chips chafes at the system throughout the film, and when he is headmaster he eliminates fagging altogether. But the story also shows Chips upholding the idea of a hierarchy of authority. In the film, when the new headmaster wants to force him to resign, Chips tells the boys not to fight it: "His authority cannot be questioned; we must have hierarchies in life, we must have points of reference."

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Interesting facts:

An independent school is a school that is independent in its finances and governance; it is not dependent upon national or local government for financing its operations, nor reliant on taxpayer contributions, and is instead funded by a combination of tuition...

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