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
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