At independent schools, this idea never went away. But the emphasis in many schools is shifting from power and punishment to pastoral care. It is not a final victory for the "swotty nerds", insist the teachers. These days, heads of school are being chosen for their social awareness as well as for their academic record. They tend to be the more serious-minded representatives of their generation: knowledgeable about drugs as part of general youth culture, but unlikely to have experimented (and unlikely to admit it if they have); well informed about sex, yet shy of discussing their own private lives.
If these are Britain's high fliers of the future, then Major, Blair and Ashdown take note. Almost every one of them is suspicious of politicians from all parties, and completely uninterested in day-to- day political rhetoric. They are more concerned with single issues: the environment, education and health. The narrow jobs market, uncertainty about the future, the squeeze on funding higher education and pressure to conform are the most commonly cited worries.
We spoke to 13 head boys and girls from eight very different schools. Here are their stories.
Roedean, near Brighton, is an all-girls independent school, founded in 1885. It has 425 pupils, aged 11 to 18. Selection is by entrance exam and interview. Annual boarding fees: pounds 12,975.
Head girl Michelle Baxter, 18, was born in Liberia and grew up in Ethiopia. Her parents, who she says scrimped for her education, work for the UN in New York. She aims to go to Princeton, and be a doctor.
In Michelle's first year at Roedean, her grandmother was shot dead in Liberia. A few months later, her family was temporarily evacuated from their home in Addis Ababa when separatists overthrew the Communist government. It was 1990. Michelle was only 12.
"My grandmother was an ordinary person who worked in a hospital. There were many warring factions and a lot of looting. I don't really know who shot her, and I don't really want to know. The day she died, I changed completely. I became very withdrawn for a long time. I would have temper fits. The slightest little thing, like someone chewing noisily, would make me explode."
It's hard to imagine this polite, slightly nervous public schoolgirl throwing tantrums. "But I did, and now I'm very good at spotting depression and anxiety in the younger girls. At Roedean, there are some girls who completely take for granted the privileges they enjoy. I sometimes wish I could take them back to Addis Ababa, to my old school, where we shared a text book."
There is, she insists, a sisterhood among the girls: "I'm a black international student; they could have made me feel like a specimen in a jar." But she's aware of racism outside school: "People look at you like they expect you to be ignorant. Maybe a cafe owner will wonder, 'Is she able to pay for that sandwich and soda?' It's subtle, because they're polite, but it's still very much there. It makes me angry, but I don't get uptight. I try to talk to people about Africa, and educate them. Black people who retreat from it and deal with it by being more insular are not doing themselves any favours. Martin Luther King didn't hide away and wait for someone else to come along and fight it."
Michelle says she doesn't go to the riotous parties and teen balls which give public schoolgirls such a sex-mad reputation: "They do happen - I call it hormone overdrive - but the last thing I want to be telling my children when they ask me, 'What did you do at Roedean, Mummy?' is, 'Oh, I won a snogathon with a boy from Eton'. I see a definite line between sex and romance."
It was her taste for romance which got her into her biggest scrape at Roedean: "I like Mills and Boon novels - there, it's out! 'The head girl at Roedean reads trashy romances' - and I kept reading after lights out. The teachers asked me to stop, but I kept defying them. I got a detention, and then they wrote to my parents. I was very ashamed. My parents were upset. I can't help thinking, though, that, if it had been Homer, there might not have been such a fuss."
Mitchell High, a comprehensive school in Bucknall, Stoke-on-Trent, draws its pupils from the most deprived areas in the city. In 1994, faced with a falling school roll and poor GCSE results, it narrowly escaped closure.
Yvette Dennis, 16, and Chris Steele, 15, are head girl and boy. Yvette's stepfather is a lorry driver; her mother works in a clothes shop. Chris's mother died of cancer six years ago; his father took redundancy to care for Chris and his younger sister.
Yvette Dennis is normally quiet-spoken, but is prone to get angry if people criticise her school. Yes, Mitchell High was almost closed; yes, the exam results are well below average; no, that does not mean the teachers are rubbish.
She remembers her third year, when Staffordshire County Council announced plans to close, as a frustrating, angry time." Everything that was ever written about us was negative. Nobody seemed to care that the teachers were working really hard. Morale got really low. The pupils who didn't like school were not bothered; they thought the school would be closed and that would be it - they could stay at home watching TV all day. But I got really angry. It made me try even harder because I wanted to prove them all wrong."
Head teacher Len Wilde fought the sink school tag, targeting truants and introducing a special support unit for the less academic and a personal tutoring scheme for bright pupils. Last year, despite appearing within the bottom 10 per cent of the national GCSE exam league tables, Mitchell High was able to boast that 21 per cent of its 16-year-old school leavers (the school has no sixth form) went on to full-time jobs, compared to the national average of 10 per cent. In two years, attendance levels have risen from 72 to 85 per cent.
Yvette works after school in the local supermarket. She wants to do a degree in psychology at Staffordshire University, a decision influenced by finance: "It would mean I could live at home. So many students cannot cope financially and have to give up their degrees - and debt really worries me."
Chris is taking eight GCSEs. " My long-term goal is a good career, nice house, nice car, nice life - probably a wife and kids, eventually. I think too many people in my school have failed to work it out that education is a means of escape. Otherwise, they'll end up on the dole or, if they're lucky, a job they don't particularly like."
Yvette and Chris had to write application letters for their posts. Chris felt under some peer pressure not to apply: "I think, in a school like ours, it tends to be more the lads that mess around and drag the rest down. I have to strike this balance between being with my friends, being one of the lads, and wanting to study, which is not seen as being particularly cool. The pupils who applied to be prefects all pretended it was because they wanted to get on lunch time duty so they could stay in during the cold weather, rather than admitting it would look good on their CVs. My dad was really surprised. He didn't do too well at school, and I don't think he expected me to."
Six years after his mother's death, the family are fighting North Staffordshire Health Authority. They believe that Mrs Steele was one of more than 1,000 patients given the wrong radiotherapy doses at the North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary between 1982 and 1991. This legal wrangle is an added stress, Chris admits. "It's like you think you have gotten over it, but then it gets you again. I think there are a lot of pressures on people my age. Not just jobs, but pressures to be a certain way. I know people who claim they pop Es like Smarties, but I'm not sure whether to believe them.
"If you've got to 16 and you haven't had sex, you're considered some sort of nerd. If you have a girlfriend [he is dating a fellow prefect], all your mates are nagging you: 'How far did you get?' and all that. I don't like that. Sometimes you feel quite isolated."
Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys is a grant-maintained selective school in Canterbury, Kent, with 800 pupils. Its history goes back as far as the 13th century.
Nick Churchill, 18, of Ashford, Kent, is head boy. He is taking A levels in English, geography and economics. He is captain of the Kent Hockey 15-18 side, and plays for and sometimes captains the South East England 15-17 side. His father is a tax consultant.
Years before he became head boy, Nick Churchill was saddled with the nickname "Langton Nick". "Basically, people think you can look at me and say, 'Yes, it's obvious': I am head boy of Simon Langton School. I kind of sum up the ethos. I think tradition is important, and I take my responsibility as a representative of the school seriously, no matter how much stick I get."
He says that the obvious advantage of being at a single-sex school is that there are no female distractions. "But we mix with our counterparts at the girls' school. The fact that we are a day school helps, because you have more personal freedom. Now, if we were a single-sex public boarding school, that could be a potential disaster."
Nick wants to be an army officer, and he has all the attributes. He is academic but also sporty: a captain of the 1st XI hockey team; a keen rugby player; and a member of Herne Bay Sailing Club, where he races his own boat (A Saturday job in a farm shop helps to finance his hobbies.) He believes in discipline and rules. "If I'd been head boy several decades ago, I don't think I would have been keen on corporal punishment. I see myself more as a go- between. When one pupil was suspected of taking drugs, I was asked to keep my ear to the ground, but, ultimately, the matter was dealt with by senior staff." He cites the environment as a chief concern, but is not impressed by any of the political parties. "I don't know how I'll vote."
Through his sporting activities, Nick socialises with pupils from both independent and comprehensive schools, and he believes passionately in choice and selective education in the state sector. "The teaching standards here are equal to the best public schools. The only things which mark public school pupils out from us is that they're richer and have better information technology and sports facilities."
As for comprehensives: "Morally and socially, mixing abilities may be a good idea, but it's not the best environment for people to use their academic potential. There's always the risk you could get the balance wrong - focus on the bright children and leave the rest behind, or vice versa. Education is something you should be able to tailor to personal needs."
Hasmonean is a Jewish, grant-maintained school in north London. Girls and boys are educated separately, in Mill Hill and Hendon. Daniel Klein, 18, is head boy, studying physics, chemistry, maths and further maths A levels. Head girl Elisheva Shaffer, also 18, is taking A levels in politics, modern Hebrew and textiles.
Daniel Klein, an Orthodox Jew, describes himself as a Zionist - "but not a fanatical Zionist". Often, however, it is the events in Israel, rather than British politics, which dominate his thoughts.
"When Kenneth Clarke slashes a penny off income tax, it doesn't cause a stir," he says. But when the Israeli artillery barrage on 18 April killed 102 people in Lebanon, it sent shock waves around the school. "The death of so many people horrified everybody." He hesitates, ambivalent, struggling to find the appropriate words. "But, in my opinion, Israel must retaliate if terrorists are to be driven out of our homeland. Israel didn't start it."
Next year, he, Elisheva and many of their friends will spend a year studying in Israel before going to university. He could vote here by proxy, but probably won't bother. "I suppose I would vote for a party if they had some good policies for the Jews or Israel, but no one seems to have any," he muses. "Perhaps that's not such a bad thing. Sometimes I think it's safer if we just keep quiet and make our own way. After all, the Jews who tried hardest to be integrated were the German Jews of the Thirties, and look what happened to them."
Elisheva lived for eight years in Israel, "and it was a wonderful, free childhood. You could catch a bus or walk in the street by yourself. It felt safe, no stranger danger. Now I worry about my relatives over there a great deal."
At Hasmonean, girls follow a code of modesty: no trousers, and uniforms must cover their elbows and knees. Study of Hebrew, the Talmud and the Bible are compulsory for all. Fourteen hours a week are given over to religion.
Elisheva is happy that girls have separate classes. "You don't have to worry about what you're wearing. Without the boys, you can just be yourself, you can concentrate." Both refer to the spirit of "ruach" in the school - a sense of belonging.
Daniel says he will wait until he's ready to get married, probably in his early twenties, "rather than dating for the fun of it". Some members of their community, the Hassidim, still advocate marriage by matchmaking. "I think the matchmaker has a role," he says. "For me, I don't know - but I will have to marry a totally Orthodox Jewish girl. It's a long time to wait for a relationship. But it's a bit like television - if you've never had one, you don't miss it."
Ashdown House, founded in 1886, is an independent boarding school in East Sussex for boys and girls aged eight to 13. Annual fees: pounds 9,330. The head boy, Tom Burnett-Hitchcock, 13, is about to sit the entrance exam for Eton.
Tom has no power to hand out detentions, but he and other prefects keep a report book for the teachers; sometimes he's called a "snitch". "The worst-behaved members of the school, the most rowdy and show-offy, are the ten- and 11-year-olds," he says. "It's that year where, if someone wants to work, the rest might call him swotty."
He says that boarding has given him the self-confidence his parents wished for. But would he consider it for his own child? "Probably," he replies after a pause," but I'd wait and see what he or she was like first."
The Swaminarayan School in Neasden, north-west London, is the first Hindu school in the UK. Opened in 1992, it has 318 pupils. Annual fees range from pounds 2,475 (nursery) to pounds 4,785.
The head girl and boy are Dimple Patel, 17, studying chemistry, biology and maths A levels, and Vinesh Patel (no relation), 18, studying chemistry and biology A levels and A/S level maths.
The school is the brainchild of Pramukh Swami Maharaj, guru of the Swaminarayan sect, who, on his visits from India, was alarmed by what he saw as Britain's moral decline. It's across the road from Europe's largest traditional temple, which members of the community built, stone by stone, in 27 months. Pupils celebrate both Christmas and Bonfire Night, which falls close to Diwali.
Dimple and Vinesh both came two years ago from multi-ethnic schools. Dimple's father, an African Hindu born in Zambia, believed she would get more moral guidance at a Hindus-only school. Vinesh switched because he was worried about his A levels: "I had mucked about too much with my mates previously. Now, being Hindu is important to me. I have a sense of belonging, whereas my friends who are not believers seem confused.
"In our community, there's a great pressure on the boys to achieve academic success. My parents own a shop. My father works hard, but I don't want to spend my life working in a shop. Girls are expected to do well, too, but there's still that pressure from the old culture for them to get married at 18 or 19."
Pupils do have boyfriends and girlfriends, but they are not supposed to. Recently, Dimple asked her father, also a shop owner, if she would be expected to make an arranged marriage: "I asked half in joke, then I thought, 'Oh no, what have I just said?' But he said, 'No, you can make your own choice.'" She will be expected, however, to obey the caste system and marry a Patel. She plans to become a nurse after university.
The pair have remarkably few criticisms of their school, though Vinesh is worried that some social issues are not properly addressed. "I think, because it's a religious school, they're a bit scared to broach subjects such as HIV, AIDS and drug abuse. At my old school, they had an expert talk about drugs and it really had an impact. I hope the head of senior school will consider it. To prepare the pupils for the outside world, they need to know about it."
Rugby school in Warwickshire (annual fees: pounds 12,720), birthplace of rugby football, last year appointed a girl, Louise Woolcock, as head of school for the first time in 428 years. The school has had girls in the sixth form since 1976, but only went fully coeducational three years ago. Now there are 210 girls and 500 boys. The head boy, Huw Brown, 17, hopes to read Japanese at Oxford, followed by a career in the Foreign Office.
On Louise's first day as head girl, more than 200 boys boycotted a chapel service to mark the 200th birthday of Thomas Arnold, the school's most famous headmaster. The choice of a girl - and one who was not even particularly interested in sport - was a serious break with tradition. Journalists laid siege to the school's historic close, and camped outside Louise's home in Oxford. The new head girl, then 17, made headline news from New York to Australia.
Now, almost a year later, she looks back with disbelief. "It was total madness. I didn't have time to drink a cup of tea. When I finally collapsed to watch television, there I was, on the box. That was the limit - we switched it off."
She insists that the boys were protesting because she had been at the school for only nine months, not because she was a girl. Rugby, in any case, shrewdly co-operated with the press, as Louise is a perfect ambassador for the school: a committed Christian, fiercely anti-drugs, not particularly interested in party politics, but "very concerned" about education and health. She is studying biology, maths and chemistry at A level and wants to do a psychology degree at Bristol University.
Both Huw and Louise were recommended by prefects and staff, and act as mediators between students and teachers. The most serious discord they remember followed a request from senior pupils to stay out later than 10.15pm on Saturdays.
The school recently set up a working party to consider drug testing. "It would be naive and stupid of any school to say that none of its pupils have experimented with drugs," says Huw, "but my opinion is, it's a decision people have to take for themselves. They should, however, be informed that it's illegal." "Drugs are against everything I believe in," adds Louise.
When girls were first allowed into Rugby, they could enter boys' studies. That, says Louise, turned out to present problems, and is now not permitted. "But there are fewer intense, heated relationships than you might expect. There aren't many private places for people to sneak off to and have sex, and no girl wants to be the one to have a session behind a bush, so it doesn't really happen."
They paint a picture of Utopia - great camaraderie, extensive opportunities for sport and drama, visits by senior politicians and top-ranking rugby players, trips abroad, high teaching standards, grade A facilities. There seems to be little guilt that their lives are so privileged.
"We're not blinkered," insists Louise. "I have friends from other schools, and Rugby is not the most affluent of towns, so we're aware of the other side of things."
"If we've missed out on anything in social terms, it's not something we are aware of at this stage," says Huw. "Perhaps we'll find out later."
Hinchingbrooke Secondary, a former grammar school which became comprehensive 25 years ago, lies in John Major's Huntingdon constituency. The school has 1,900 pupils spread over three sites.
Alexandra Siddall, 17, is head girl, studying geography, biology, English literature and A/S level maths. Stuart Green, 17, is head boy, studying maths, geography and economics.
When the head teacher's post at Hinchingbrooke became available, applicants were interviewed by a panel of pupils led by Stuart and Alexandra. "Uniform, rules, and whether the head would also teach, were big issues," says Alexandra. "We didn't want a distant figurehead who'd just sit in his office all day."
The applicants were asked to describe how students at their existing schools viewed them. One, who replied that he was a strict disciplinarian, was immediately ruled out. Others scored badly when they started illustrating their points with patronising little anecdotes. The school's governing body made the final decision, but they settled on the same candidate as the pupils'. "We chose the candidate who spoke to us straight."
Stuart says he knows teenagers who smoke cannabis (and of cases where it has been brought into school - a disciplinary offence) and others who take Es, but he believes most are more likely to drink alcohol. "And I don't see alcohol as being bad, like drugs."
"I can appreciate why teenagers might turn to drugs," adds Alexandra. "There's a lot of pressure to conform and be like their mates, and drugs are part of youth culture. But when I heard about Leah Betts' death, I got angry, because she had a choice to take that pill. Recently, a friend of mine died in a car accident. She didn't have a choice"