The public schools of England have long been praised and reviled in equal measure. Do they perpetuate elites and unjust divisions of social class? Do they improve or corrupt young minds and bodies? Should they be abolished? Are they in fact the form of education we would all wish for our children if we could only afford the fees?
Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy's classic study of Britain's 'independent sector' of schools first appeared in 1977 and still stands as the most widely admired history of the subject, ranging across 1400 years in its spirited investigation. Provocative and comprehensive, witty and revealing, it traces the arc by which schools that were, circa 1900, typically 'frenziedly repressive about sex, odiously class-conscious and shut off into tight, conventional, usually brutal little total communities' gradually evolved into acknowledged centres of academic excellence, as keen on science as organised games, 'fairly relaxed about sex, and moderate in discipline' - but to which access still 'depends largely on class and entirely on money.'