Of public and private

Every now and again I come across areas of confusion caused by the differences between different versions of English – particularly British and American.  A particular recurrent example, and one which I’ve seen several times in examples of student work which are otherwise excellent, concerns the terms used to describe different types of school.  Incidentally I’m here talking about school as the institution typically attended from the ages of maybe 5 to around 18; Americans are much more likely than Britons to say ‘I’m going to school’ even if they are going to a college or university.  And in British universities, including the one where I work, it’s common to refer to a sub-division of the university as a ‘school’.  This is already a linguistic minefield and I haven’t even got to my point.

There are many types of school in Britain and plenty of different ways to categorise them.  One is between primary (ages 4-11) and secondary (ages 11-18): if my knowledge of American English is correct then that’s roughly equivalent to the distinction between American elementary schools and high schools.  There are seven Harry Potter books because British children, including Harry Potter at Hogwarts, often spend seven years in secondary school.

The other important distinction is between state schools, which are state-funded, and private, or ‘independent’, schools where the parents pay tuition fees.  This is where the British/American linguistics become most confusing.  Americans typically talk about ‘public’ and ‘private’ schools, where public are the ones that are funded through (usually local) government and where parents don’t pay fees.

But in Britain, the term ‘public school’ is used to refer to some of the most expensive and exclusive private, fee-paying, schools.  These are long-standing institutions and the original argument was that they sold education to the public in the same way that Fortnum and Mason sell groceries to the public: it was available to anybody who could pay for it, and wasn’t limited to members of royal families or religious orders.  To add to the complication, the British term, State School, doesn’t work in America, because the word ‘state’ would imply that these schools were funded and organised at the level of a particular state, as distinct from the whole country or from an individual city.  Whereas in fact one thing that the very different educational systems in Britain and America have in common is that, usually, schools are organised and funded at a fairly local area.

Now the coalition government’s proposals around free schools add another dimension to the linguistic mix, since all state-funded schools are essentially free to parents.  In fact the key characteristic of the proposed free schools (and I recognise that there are a lot of contentious issues around how effectively this would work) is a level of separation between the schools and the local authorities that fund them.  In fact ‘independent school’ would be a more accurate description, but as I’ve already mentioned, that one already has a different meaning in the UK


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