Public School Types

by Scribble Monboddo

The term 'public school' is one of those sources of transatlantic confusion which, along with tap/faucet, bonnet/hood, pavement/sidewalk, railway/railroad and so many others, keeps the UK and US "two nations divided by a common language". That just makes for more linguistic fun, as far as I'm concerned, but there is a bit of history to it. You knew that was coming, though, right?

Long before the UK was the UK, England, Scotland, Wales and, actually, Ireland had a long tradition of education being a privilege rather than a right. The aristocracy could afford tutors for their sons (and, occasionally, daughters), and clever but impoverished boys might get an education from the church in return for ecclesiastical warbling services - the origin of the choristers' schools still attached to several cathedrals. But it was only with the advent of the charitable school open, to some degree, to all boys with talent that there was access to children of any rank and station. The charities initially responsible often had royal patronage then, and now, which is why we have the otherwise baffling spectacle of Eton being termed a 'public school'. Technically that access remains, in that for boys whose families can't cover the eye-watering fees there are a limited number of bursaries available, but in most senses when Brits talk about a public school what they mean is, err, a private school. Some centuries later, wild-eyed innovation had brought about the radical idea of funding schools by general taxation, and even letting girls in (gasp!). Just to make matters more bewildering still, some of the institutions started by royal charities entered that system; my own school, for instance, was founded with a charter from Elizabeth I in the sixteenth century but I didn't have to pay a groat to attend. Yet we don't call those publicly-accessible institutions public schools, of course - that would be far too simple.

Over in the US, the nineteenth century saw plenty of reforming zeal to raise provision of and participation in education, with girls included too - although there was, perhaps inevitably, more of a blind spot when it came to including people of all ethnic backgrounds. Nevertheless, the idea of comprehensive schooling for all, funded by the public purse, is now so well-established that it's almost central to the culture. Those identical corridors full of lockers seen in high school movies really are fitted in every high school, and we have President Truman to thank for the ubiquitous 'prison tray' catering; the 1946 National School Lunch Act is still in force. Unfortunately, these days education funding can be quite variable between states, and in several salaries are so low that many teachers can only survive economically by taking on second jobs. In an attempt to make up the gap, educational reformers are returning to that old tradition of thoughtful charity, and this is where Public-Supply comes in; if their notebooks look just a touch on the pricey side, it's because they are intended to raise money to keep the 'land of the free' from sliding into ignorance. 25% of net profits go to supporting creative arts activities, which can make a substantial difference when all the energy is aimed at standardised test scores otherwise. If you're wondering why the rest of the world should contribute, remember the old phrase from the financial markets: when America sneezes, the world catches a cold.

So, what are the notebooks like? Well, they're a bit of an odd size to European eyes, at 5" X 8" - seriously, who still uses inches in the twenty-first century? Oh, hang on, American education does - fair enough. But the embossed cover does look the business. In the manner of school stationery cupboards the world over, the available colours are rather muted; the mustardy yellow-beige tone I have is officially 'fuse', although unofficial descriptions have ranged from mustard to 'snail poo', which is perhaps a little uncharitable. I confess it isn't entirely to my taste either, so as is traditionally the case with school exercise books mine has been liberally 'decorated' and now looks ready for a creative arts lesson, or at least Hippy 101. The before-and-after picture above at least evidences the absorbency of the card, if not the quality of my handiwork.

It's also, thankfully, not bad to write on. I do find my wettest fountain pens can bleed through a bit, so I tend to write on just one side, but the paper is pleasantly smooth to scribble on, also accepts graphite with alacrity, and has proved just the ticket for some rough drafting of pieces for publication. But the end-of-lesson bell has just sounded, so as is traditional I have to finish this review mid-way through a sent....

Monboddo!!! No running in the corridors!!