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I was reading the Norwoodbuilder’s blog, which is very interesting and I came across this post: What kind of school did Mycroft and Sherlock attend and when?

I was captivated by the topic and I decided to explore this issue

  • A short explanation of the British education system (and clarify what a public school actually is)

  • The origins of the Ice Man or the famous Holmes reserve

  • What kind of an education they might have received

  • Why Mycroft/Sherlock are unlikely to be “home-schooled”


Public, Private and the State

The British education system is split into state schools (those run by the government and what the US would call public schools) and private schools.

Currently education in the state system is divided into primary schools (4-11) and then secondary/senior schools (11-18). There are many different subdivisions within these two categories: infant schools (4-7) and junior schools (7-11). As compulsory education is only up to the age of 16 some secondary schools do not include a sixth form (16-18), however the vast majority do. Many people leave school at 16 with GCSE qualifications which I think in the US is the equivalent of a high school diploma. Sixth form is where you get the higher qualification of A-levels which then enables you to go onto University.

The British public schools are an elite group of old, distinguished private schools generally associated with the aristocracy/ruling class. They were referred to as public schools because nearly all of them were founded as charitable institutions to educate the poor between the late medieval and the early Victorian period (1400 – 1800). In the Victorian era, these boarding schools became a great favourite of the rich who began to value an institutionalised education for their son to better equip them for service in the Empire.


(Two Etonians waiting to be picked up from a cricket match)

It is very likely given the type of background Mycroft and Sherlock appear to come from, they would have attended a public school, which uses a completely different system.

The Ice Man and the Virgin

The public school system has clung onto the traditional education system. In this system preparatory schools (so called because they prepare the child for public school) are sometimes boarding schools and take children from the age of 7 to the age of 13. At which point, the child then moves onto a public school and stayed there until they were 18 and old enough to matriculate at University. Preparatory schools do take boarders from the age of 7. (To get an idea of their lives are like please watch Britain’s Youngest Boarders)

I think this might give us an insight into why both Mycroft and Sherlock turned into the adults they did. We have seen that they are both very reserved with their feelings – many fans like to look upon this as being rooted in their family problems. I personally think this is much more to do with the early institutionalisation of these two boys. They may have started off which quite reserved personality but the years within the boarding school systems might have exacerbated this tendency towards burying one’s emotions.

The public school system was envisaged by the Victorians as a great engine for social engineering. They believed that to have a strong sustainable Empire it was imperative that the next generation of male leaders (i.e. the children of the aristocracy) were strong. Boarding schools were designed to be “character building”, students were housed in basic conditions, subjected to corporal punishment and a strict code of behaviour. The public school system pretty much popularised the idea of the “stiff upper lip”.

Although the conditions have since improved (but corporal punishment was not banned in the private sector until the 1990s) the traditional boarding schools still foster an ethos of “strength” both physically and emotionally. The classic British “stiff upper lip” may have disintegrated in the past two decades but there are still certain strata of society that view this as an essential characteristic to national identity.

Boarding school life does toughen children up considerably and teach them to become independent. Neither of these are bad things, and I have nothing personally against the boarding school system. However when a child is sent away to boarding, it is the school that the “home” environment. Student spends much more time in school than they do at home.

Mycroft and Sherlock’s emotional reserve may not have been an accurate reflection of their home circumstances but rather their education.

There is nothing wrong with Ice

There is actually nothing “abnormal” about Mycroft’s emotional reserve, as many people particularly of the older generation find expression emotions to be gauche, rude and a sign of poor breeding. Social grace, manners and courtesy on the other hand are prized, after all “manners maketh a man”. Mycroft’s personality is merely the product of a certain strata of society. I have to say there are hundreds and thousands of men just like Mycroft and he would not stand out amongst the social class in which he has been raised. He is the epitome of the English Gentleman.

Jim Moriarty on the other hand clearly has not been raised in the same social circles as Mycroft. He might wear an expensive suit and be able to imitate the manners but his natural demeanour as we can see in TGG and TRF is nothing like Mycroft’s. To him, Mycroft must look like an Ice Man – so cool and detached but truthfully had Jim mingled in the same social circles, he would know that Mycroft is not more detached than the rest of his brethren.

A Good Old Fashioned Education

The list of public schools in Britain is rather long and I shan’t go into details about each one. Suffice to say nearly all of them are boarding schools. Three of the most famous are: Harrow, Eton and Westminster. Between them these three schools of educated a great number of Prime Ministers, MPs, military leaders, famous actors and scientists. Prince William and Harry went to Eton and Winston Churchill went to Harrow to name but a few famous alumni.

I imagine it would be his public school where Mycroft first started to build the contacts he would later use. Given his age, I can assume it is very likely that Mycroft might have known of or even studied with David Cameron (our Prime Minister) or George Osbourne (our chancellor) who both went to Eton.

I personally think, Mycroft and Sherlock who both educated in a single sex boarding school. I have no evidence and it is pure speculation but single sex schools are much more common in the UK than in the US particularly for secondary education (11+). It is a remnant of history as secondary schools was the preserve of boys only up until the end of the 19th century when girls schools were establish for the rich, who had finally realised a governess wasn’t going to teach their daughter how to live in the real world.

The two most famous public schools for boys are as mentioned before Eton and Harrow.

In the modern day they do not have to follow the national curriculum but most public schools do simply because the national curriculum teaches towards the national exams (GCSEs/A-levels). There is perhaps more academic focus on the traditional subjects: Maths, English, French, History, Geography, Religious Education, Latin, Greek, Sciences.

They also have a thriving music, art and theatre timetable as well as a heavy emphasis on team sports (because they are character building) such as rugby, Eton fives, cricket in the summer and football.

I am sure that Sherlock’s talent for the violin would be honed in this environment and Mycroft’s acting skills would have benefited from the excellent theatrical facilities. There is something very dramatic about both Holmes brothers and I think they probably did appear on stage.

How very British?


(Not owned by me)

I read a great deal of fanfiction regarding the Holmes brothers’ childhood and an overarching similarity in many of the works is the assumption that Mycroft and Sherlock were home-schooled. The reasons for this assumption according to a range of authors: they are both incredibly intelligent, Sherlock lacks social skills and they obvious come from a wealthy background.

As fun and interesting as this premise is to explore, it is very unlikely that Mycroft or Sherlock were home-schooled in the modern age. Even ACD Sherlock/Mycroft would not have been entirely home-schooled even though they come from an aristocratic background (they are country Esquires see – Holmes Family Fortunes)

I think perhaps many writers have read enough historical fiction (Jane Austen?) to glean that the aristocracy home-schooled their children. This is not entirely true, the aristocracy from the 19th century onwards home-schooled their daughters not their sons. Sons were almost exclusively sent away to boarding school from a young age. This was the norm, the social convention, and if you kept your son at home with a private tutor you must have had a very good justification for doing so. Having behavioural problems is not a good excuse, in fact if ACD Sherlock been half the nightmare BBC Sherlock currently is, his parents would have relied on the boarding school system to “knock the corners off him” so to speak.

The sending one’s son off to boarding school was not just about an academic education. Boarding schools were the bastion of Victorian values. To refuse to participate in this great social engineering project was tantamount to thumbing your nose up at the Queen. It was also socially damaging to the child as school was the place for making useful social/political contacts for the future.

This respect for the school system appears to have filtered down through the social ranks and the generations to the present day. In the 21st century home-schooling your child is still viewed by some people as a refusal to participate in wider society and generally more damaging than beneficial.

Additionally in order to home-school your child you have to jump through a series of nasty bureaucratic hoops. The government does not encourage people to home-school their children, there are few government sponsored resources to aid parents and there isn’t an extensive network of like minded people for support (as there might be in the US).

Private tutors do exist in the modern day, but I have yet to find an agency that offers tutors that can fulfil the government criteria for home-schooling. Private tutors are generally to aid students with school work to pass certain exams. It’s a very big business but they are in no way drawing students away from schools

Comments always welcome

Other Parts in the Series:

Mycroft the Enigma Part 1 - James Bond was a Civil Servant too….

Irene’s Royal Flush

Checkmate, End Game

Mycroft the Enigma Part 2 - Holmes Family Fortune


( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 23rd, 2012 03:06 pm (UTC)
A drive-by comment as I don't have to read right now... but I also have a meta on Sherlock in the British Education System that adds to the topic: http://archiveofourown.org/works/394267
Dec. 23rd, 2012 07:21 pm (UTC)
One thing you might want to add to this is that GCSEs were not introduced until 1988. So Sherlock probably did them, and possibly John, depending what you think his age is, but Mycroft and Lestrade would have taken O-levels instead.
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 23rd, 2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
I sort of think he isn't -- I mean, given that Sherlock was born January 6th, 1981 -- Mycroft would probably by shy of forty. But it's speculative, etc.
Dec. 23rd, 2012 08:26 pm (UTC)
It's something you might want to bear in mind depending on your headcanon, then. :)
Dec. 23rd, 2012 08:55 pm (UTC)

Thanks for mentioning this. I don't mean that Sherlock and Mycroft did GCSEs though these exams were introduced in 1988. I mean that in the modern day public schools are very academically originated and expect all their students to take national exams. The mention of GCSEs/A-levels was just an example of the national exams are called at the moment.
Dec. 24th, 2012 12:32 am (UTC)
Oh, sure! I just thought it might be worth mentioning it, for people planning on writing about school-age characters. :)
Dec. 27th, 2012 08:04 am (UTC)
What was an O level?

It was also 3 years like the A levels from 16 to 18?

I think too Mycroft could go out before 1988, but not John because even in his real 41 he didn't hit 18 till 1989!

But i picture Mycroft entering Uni at 1987 or something like that!
Dec. 27th, 2012 09:43 pm (UTC)

An O-level is the equivalent of a GCSEs today and they were replaced with the GCSE qualifications in 1988. These exams are taken at tend of compulsory education at age 16 and are regarded by employers in the same way as a High School Diploma is in the US, I think.

A-levels are part of higher education: they are not compulsory. They are a two year program not three years. A-levels are required for entry to university.

If Mycroft is 40 or younger he would have taken GCSEs at age 16. If he is older, he would have taken O-level exams at 16.

Sherlock and John, mostly likely took GCSEs when they were first introduced.

All three characters would have taken A-levels in order to get into university.
Dec. 24th, 2012 01:16 am (UTC)
Very quick thing- I'm sure I remember reading in numerous sources that the photograph is of two Harrovians, not Etonians...? I might be wrong.
Good post, by the way!
Feb. 25th, 2013 01:14 pm (UTC)
Yes you are completely right - I'm off to change the caption!
Dec. 24th, 2012 07:57 am (UTC)
This is incredibly helpful to this non-native speaker in her writing. I thank you heartily for it.
Dec. 24th, 2012 08:01 pm (UTC)
...I'm seriously glad I haven't read any fic that says they were homeschooled beyond 7. I facepalm way too much and stop reading halfway through so much fic due to not getting the british stuff right (and thus making it completely unrealistic)

added: One thing the public school system also adds is confidence, often to what sounds like the point of arrogance because that's the only way you get your voice heard in class or elsewhere.

(and if they're girls, volume. i went to a very very minor public school and even though we were essentially an exam factory, there is a reason jolly hockeysticks and st trinians are clichés.)
Dec. 27th, 2012 08:14 am (UTC)
I never had thought the boarding schools were public schools!

I thinkmsometimes that Mycroft when to boraxing school but maybe Sherlock went to a private one? Or another boarding school different to Mycroft because the big ocean between them! It is like they didn't see each other much at all after Mycroft left for boarding school, and they never regain closeness, growing more and more apart.

I want to ask you a question: in some fic Sherlock and sometimes even Mycroft do school in few years less than the norm. It is that even possible in Britain i wonder?

In my country at least it was possible until 1984 after that it was prohibited because it was said the kids needs the maturity as well as the knowledge, so they can't leap courses or enter before their time.
Dec. 27th, 2012 02:30 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the comment.

Not all boarding schools are public schools and not all public schools are all boarding: St Paul's Boys School in London is a day school and a public school.

All public schools are private schools - as in they are not funded by the government and therefore the parents have to pay fees.

I personally think given Sherlock and Mycroft's mannerisms they both went to public school. They would not have been in school at the same time because they have a 7 year age difference and therefore would never overlap. I don't think the brothers were ever close as children anyway because of the age difference.

You can skip years at school in the UK. It is difficult to get accepted into university unless you are 18 years old but exceptions can be made. Cambridge for example weaves the matriculation rules (you have to be at least 17 years and 6 months to matriculate) for truly exceptional teenagers.
Jan. 24th, 2013 10:35 pm (UTC)
Nice look at the brothers' early education....do you think then that they would have gone to Eton?

Honestly, I don't think that Sherlock is that bad I mean he seems very spoiled which would mean that he probably spent a lot of time at home when possible ^^ Or, maybe not an he just wanted attention.
Feb. 25th, 2013 02:13 am (UTC)
Re: ACD canon Holmes. 'Country squires' were not aristocrats. They were the class below, what used to known as "gentlemen" (i.e. people who didn't have to earn a living, but who did not have titles). Towards the end of the 19th century, agriculture was in an economic depression, and many of their children did end up having to become professionals of some kind - viz, the Holmes brothers.
Feb. 25th, 2013 01:11 pm (UTC)
The British aristocracy is not made up purely of title holding peers. Aristocracy is defined as the highest social class. Esquires are considered the lower echelon of the upper class or aristocracy. They are distinctly different from peers of the realm, who do have titles, and you are right in saying that they are known as "gentlemen". They are not in the class below, as they are not considered middle class.

I do a more detailed explanation in Holmes Family Fortunes

It's common for the younger sons of peers even to enter professions as such the clergy or military in order to support themselves. Therefore it is quite logical that Sherlock has found a way of making his own living.

Edited at 2013-02-25 01:13 pm (UTC)
Feb. 25th, 2013 02:01 pm (UTC)
I'm talking about canon Holmes, not Sherlock.

"Esquire — A rank next below that of Knight" - Boutell's English Heraldry, 1899.

Gentleman would be a rank below that.

No, not 'middle class', but not aristocrats. Sui generis and all but defunct these days.

Edited at 2013-02-25 02:15 pm (UTC)
Feb. 25th, 2013 03:48 pm (UTC)
Yes, I understand that you are talking about ACD Holmes. What I am pointing out in the traditional three class model of working, middle and upper class/aristocracy. Esquires are considered to be in the upper class. Esquires are the rank below hereditary peers but they are still considered aristocracy of a lower status. You do not need to a peerage to belong to the upper class.
Feb. 25th, 2013 04:35 pm (UTC)
Except the Victorians had a more nuanced idea of status than the three class model.

I see no need to put Holmes in the "upper class" myself, based on what very little ACD tells us, but of course YMMV.
Feb. 25th, 2013 05:07 pm (UTC)
The Victorian invented the three class model. It was during the Victorian era that the middle classes really became a power to be reckoned with. Of course within each class people will make subdivisions. The keeper of a small business does not have the same income or social status as a barrister and yet they are both part of the middle class. In the same way a Esquire usually cannot hope to match the lifestyle or social influence of a title peer but they are still all upper class. I think upper class comes with connotations of titles, money and extravagance today but for the Victorians it was much more complicated than that.
Feb. 26th, 2013 12:39 am (UTC)
I actually went back and read some of my comments - I definitely sound like an arse.

Sorry, I typed them up hastily on my phone.

Thank you for your thoughts and comments, they were very welcome and I enjoyed the discussion.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 30th, 2013 08:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks for your lovely comment.
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )



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