A leading British public school has elected an openly gay 17-year-old as head boy in what is thought to be the first such appointment in Britain.

Staff and pupils at Brighton College, where fees start at £27,000 a year, voted overwhelmingly for banker's son Will Emery, who came out as gay to his friends and family three years ago.

Emery, whose election was greeted with a "huge round of applause", used his position to berate schools that uphold an historic ban on the "promotion" of homosexuality that has since been outlawed.

Emery, who received four A grades at AS level and hopes to win a place at Cambridge, said: "I don't think my sexuality had any impact on my being chosen, but in other periods, when people had to hide their sexuality, it could have been a different story."

His headmaster at Brighton College, Richard Cairns, acknowledged that Emery's appointment could raise eyebrows among older generations.

"When I announced that Will would be the next head of school, there was a huge round of applause," said Cairns.

"He was a very popular choice. The rugby players voted for him along with many others. But I bet if I wrote to the old boys and said our head boy was openly gay, some of them would think it was very strange indeed."

Gay rights campaigners accuse more than 40 schools of continuing to implement sex education policies that prevent the promotion of homosexuality, as introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988, in the notorious Section 28 clause of the Local Government Act.

Section 28 was repealed by the Labour government of Tony Blair in 2003.

Emery added: "The issue is with the people running the schools. It's a big thing for that generation who would have been brought up under Margaret Thatcher, when Section 28 was implemented.

"They grew up in a society where homosexuality wasn't spoken about. Their views need to be changed."

Cairns agreed, saying it was "outrageous" that schools were dragging their feet and flouting the law.

Brighton College was founded in 1845, and is credited with espousing a liberal aducational tradition, banning corporal punishment, making games voluntary and introducing universal suffrage in its election of school captains.

Its pupils' GCSE results last week made Brighton the country's most successful mixed-sex school at that level, with 95% of grades at A* or A.