Victorian Schools League Tables: The Public School Record 1886-1900

By Andy Carter, PhD Researcher, Manchester Metropolitan University

One of the unfortunate side-effects of the Covid epidemic of the last two years has been the sporadic closure of archives during local and national lockdowns. I have been exceptionally fortunate in that a high percentage of the source material I have needed has been digitised and made available online. The British Newspaper Archive has proved an invaluable resource during the pandemic. In particular, it allowed me to undertake the research which underpins my recent History of Education article, ‘‘No true or just test of merit’: ‘The Public School Record’ 1886-1900.

The Public School Record (PSR) was a series of annual reports which, at the end of the 19th century, presented a range of statistics which might be used to assess the relative performance of various public, proprietary and grammar schools. As such, it was a forerunner of the school ‘league tables’ that have been a familiar feature of English education since the 1992 Education (Schools) Act and, like the modern tables, was a source of much controversy and debate, as teachers, journalists, politicians and parents discussed which methods and measures could, or should, be included. Much of this debate took place in the letters pages of the newspapers in the weeks leading up to and following the publication of the PSR each year, providing an easily accessible insight into how this way of looking at school performance was seen at the time.

The origins of the PSR were in January 1886, when Orlando Martyn wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette, reporting the results of 28 recent scholarships awarded at Oxford colleges. The point Martyn was trying to make was that the most prestigious public schools were not necessarily the most effective at winning open scholarships to universities. Defenders of these schools, including the headmaster of Rossall, Herbert Jones, wrote dismissing Martyn’s claims as simplistic and inaccurate, but one correspondent, Oxford undergraduate Harold Spender, took the time to compile a table of every scholarship won to Oxford over an entire academic year. This became the basis for the first edition of the PSR and Spender embarked on a successful journalistic career as a result.

The Pall Mall Gazette at that time was a Liberal leaning newspaper under the editorship of the crusading journalist W.T. Stead. The PSR seems to have been taken under the wing of his assistant editor, Edward Tyas Cook, along with the newly recruited Spender. Cook and Spender were to produce the PSR as a feature of the Pall Mall Gazette until 1893 when they moved to the Westminster Gazette. In 1896, Cook and his team moved again, this time to The Daily News, and once again the PSR went with them, remaining a feature until Cook was fired for his support of the Boer War.

During its fifteen-year lifespan, the PSR underwent multiple changes, with elements dropping in and out. The table of Oxbridge scholarships remained the main feature, but this was not necessarily a good measure of effectiveness given that only a tiny proportion of boys were capable of competing for such scholarships and that figures for some public schools were skewed by the large numbers of closed scholarships they had at their disposal. To counter this, other tables were produced which measured the numbers of boys achieving School Certificate passes or passing the entrance examinations for the Army and Navy. Reflecting the importance of sport in public schools, the reports eventually included extensive reports of the athletic records of each school as well.

Each change to the PSR was accompanied by voluminous correspondence as the pros and cons of different measures of success were debated by the interested parties. The result of this an incredibly rich vein of material, which not only gives us fifteen years of statistical data charting the performance of two hundred or so of the country’s leading schools, but also provides us with the responses and reactions to this data from headmasters and universities. My article gives a brief overview of the history of the PSR and its social and political impact, but such is the depth of material available that ample opportunity for further research remains.

Winchester College Scholars, 1896

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