chapter  1
15 Pages

A thin topsoil of advanced work, 1900-1920

The sixth form at Rugby School was described by a pupil of Thomas Arnold as 'an aristocracy of talent and worth . . . an organized and responsible nobility' (Briggs, 1965, 164). Arnold built up the power and privileges of his sixth form, seeing a vital means of discipline and moral influence in what he called 'the peculiar relationship of the highest form to the rest of the boys such as exists in our great public schools'. He made use of the traditional independence of the older boys, turning them from rebel leaders into junior officers and so curbing the disorder common before his time. And he took a special pride in his success —'When I have the confidence of the sixth, there is no post in England I would exchange for this'. Despite the Arnold legend, however, his methods were not unique. Sixth forms developed strongly in the 'great' schools, offering those on the edge of the universities a chance to lead and take responsibility, and to concentrate on a few chosen subjects. But in most nineteenth-century grammar schools, advanced work was sparse or non-existent. They struggled to provide courses for pupils who often left at 15 or earlier, with sixth-form work often a matter of individual tuition in a teacher's free time.