Exeter School traces its origins from the opening of the Exeter Free Grammar School on 1 August 1633. This became the City’s school attended mainly by the sons of the City freemen and, although its teachers were licensed by the Bishop of Exeter, in all other respects, the Exeter Chamber controlled it. Exeter’s wealthy merchants provided the finance, with sufficient bequests to pay the Headmaster £50 a year and to install the school in the medieval buildings of St John’s Hospital, which had stood on the south side of the High Street since the 12th Century.
The upper floor of the nave of the chapel became the large grammar schoolroom until 1868 when it was concluded that the buildings and site were too confined. Following the Endowed Schools’ Act of 1872, the City’s education was reorganised and under a Scheme of 1876, some new schools were formed (including The Maynard School) and a new governing body was constituted for the Grammar School. This consisted of representation from the County, the City and Oxford and Cambridge Universities.
In 1876 the Headmaster, Henry Newport, resigned. His successor, Edward Harris, re-opened the school in 1877 and the school moved to its present site at Victoria Park Road. The cost at the time was £7,600 with a further £16,750 spent on the erection of buildings.
Another Scheme in 1881 laid down how the income of St John’s Hospital Trust was to be applied. The Trust had to pay to Exeter School the net annual income of all endowments for Exhibitions and Scholarships attached to the School, and it also had to pay a proportion of the residue of its income.
In January 1920 the Governors of Exeter School wrote to the Exeter Education Authority stating that it was no longer possible for them to continue the School unless considerable assistance was forthcoming. The Authority agreed to assist but only if the School came under its direct control so, on 1 April 1921, control of the school was handed over to the City. It then became a “maintained” school until 1929 when it became an “aided” school, thus regaining charge of its own finances under a newly appointed Governing Body.
In March 1945 its status changed again to a Direct Grant School and remained as such until September 1975 when the Direct Grant System was abolished by the Government of the day. The Governors first announced a declaration of intent to become a maintained non-selective school but finally decided to revert to fully independent status and the first “independent” pupils were admitted in September 1976.
From 1979, the School participated in the Assisted Places Scheme, taking over 200 pupils at its peak until this scheme was abolished by in 1997.
In 1981, girls were admitted in the Sixth Form. In 1995 the Governors took the decision to make the school fully co-educational and this took place from September 1997.