One of Simon Henderson’s first decisions after taking over last summer as headmaster of Eton College was to move his office out of the labyrinthine, late-medieval centre of the school and into a corporate bunker that has been appended (“insensitively”, as an architectural historian might say) to a Victorian teaching block. Here, in classless, optimistic tones, Henderson lays out a vision of a formerly Olympian institution becoming a mirror of modern society, diversifying its intake so that anyone “from a poor boy at a primary school in the north of England to one from a great fee-paying prep school in the south” can aspire to be educated there (so long as he’s a he, of course), joyfully sharing expertise, teachers and facilities with the state sector – in short, striving “to be relevant and to contribute”. His aspiration that Eton should become an agent of social change is not one that many of his 70 predecessors in the job over the past six centuries would have shared; and it is somehow no surprise to hear that he has incurred the displeasure of some of the more traditionally minded boys by high-fiving them. What had happened, I wondered as I left the bunker, to the Eton I knew when I was a pupil in the late 1980s – a school so grand it didn’t care what anyone thought of it, a four-letter word for the Left, a source of pride for the Right, and a British brand to rival Marmite and King Arthur?
To judge from appearances in this historic little town across the Thames from Windsor Castle, which many tourists think is worth a visit between the Round Tower and Legoland, the answer is actually not a lot. Aside from the fact that there are more brown, black and Asian faces around, the boys go about in their undertakers’ uniforms of tailcoats and starched collars, as they seem to have done for centuries, learning in the old schoolrooms and depleting testosterone on the old playing fields before being locked up for the night in houses they share with 50 of their peers (each boy has his own room). As the absence of girls demonstrates, Eton considers itself exempt from the modern belief in the integration of the sexes that so many independent schools now espouse. And it remains a boarding school – a form of education which is in decline, and which some people consider a mild form of child abuse. Add to all this the statue of Henry VI, who founded the school in 1440, amid the uneven cobbles of School Yard, and the masters cycling in their gowns to their mid-morning meeting, resembling nothing so much as a synod of ravens, and you get the opposite impression to that conveyed by Henderson: one of solidity, immobility – anything but dynamism.
To the question, “which is the ‘real’ Eton?” – the laboratory for progressive ideas about social inclusion, or an annexe to Britain’s heritage industry – the answer is of course “both”.
All schools are defined by their intake, but none more so than Eton, which for hundreds of years received the pipsqueak sons of the ruling class and disgorged them to become statesmen and administrators. (Nineteen Old Etonians – OES – including David Cameron, have served as prime minister.) This has now changed, and a new admissions policy has brought in poor clever boys, foreign boys and “new money” that the school would not have welcomed in the past. A recent parent described his surprise at finding out that the most common name at the school was Patel.
At the same time, many elements of the timeless, traditional Eton have been preserved. They’re among the reasons new parents send their sons here, along with the belief that the school will coax and push and cajole the best out of the boy – that Eton is, as the headmaster puts it, “unashamed in its pursuit of excellence”. The school aims to educate the elite, as it always has, but it has reshaped itself in order to accommodate a new elite defined by money, brains and ambition, not pedigree, titles and acres.
A delicate relationship seems likely to exist at Eton in the coming years, between deserving boys of modest background who enter the school on bursaries, often in the face of incredulity or even opposition at home, and the poised, prepared, nutritionally optimised children of the new upper class whose parents are expected to finance all this largesse – not simply by paying their fees, but also by responding to pretty much continuous appeals for money. The latest “exciting and strictly limited opportunity” is the chance to have your name inscribed on a stone around School Yard, costing £10,000 spread over four consecutive tax years.
Eton’s rich and poor coalesce and become each other’s raison d’être in the context of the school’s ambition to be “needs-blind” in the manner of Harvard – that is to say, able to offer a boy a place regardless of his parents’ ability to pay. Eton’s big plan was evoked succinctly by William Waldegrave, the provost (head of the governing body), when he told me, “what I hope is that this school will continue to produce the prime minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and entrepreneurs of all sorts, but that three-quarters of them will have been here on bursaries.”
Waldegrave and Henderson may be the latest advocates of Eton’s transformation, but the process began a generation ago. Over the past quarter-century many places have opened up to poorer families, with some 270 of the pupil body of 1,300 now receiving substantial or complete fees remission and the school recently taking out a £45m loan to raise this number further. The school can also draw on a very large endowment by British standards. As of August 2014 it had investment and property portfolios worth £300m and an annual income from school fees of around £45m, not to mention all the immovable assets and art collections. For all that, many more millions need to be wrung from parents and OES if the school is to become genuinely needs-blind.
As the school mediates between the aspiring rich and the deserving poor, a third group fights for survival: old “Eton” families who have been sending boys to the school for generations. This group dominated the Eton I attended in the 1980s, when the school was still a barely-selective rite of passage for the descendants of Britain’s Edwardian upper and upper-middle classes – complacent, snobby and full of surnames recognisable from the inter-war diaries of Harold Nicolson. This tribe’s representation is shrinking. The percentage of pupils at the school with an OE father went down from 60% in 1960 to 33% in 1994 to 20% now. Eton has gone from being an heirloom handed down through the generations to a revolving door.
No elite connives in its own dethroning, however, and Eton is a living illustration of the oft-forgotten truth that social mobility cuts both ways. Having striven to get their son into a school whose fabric reeks of continuity, it would not be a surprise if the new Eton families showed tenacity in trying to hang on to their new status by forming dynasties of their own. This new elite, floating on its liquid wealth, is probably better placed to preserve itself than the old, landed one. As often as not Mum is as high powered as Dad, and the progeny are primed not to rest on inherited laurels but to go out and achieve material success.
Here, in the emergence of a new upper class – more fluid, more international, and yet revelling in its association with the old, snobbish, British continuities – lies the tension at the heart of Eton’s ambition to become a meritocracy. To borrow from the Patek Philippe advert, “You never actually own a place at Eton. You merely look after it for the next generation”.
I performed badly in my entrance test to Eton and squeaked in only after my mother pleaded with the admissions tutor that her father had been at the school: in those days, Eton took care of its own. The establishment I entered in the spring of 1985 looked to me like the embodiment of continuity, but across the country, the mood was turning hostile. The immediate post-war period had witnessed three Etonian prime ministers in succession (one of whom, Harold Macmillan, named no fewer than 35 OES to serve in his government), but the squall of egalitarianism in the late 1960s, aggravated in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s ethos of self-help and aspiration, loosened the school’s grip on power. In 1990, when Thatcher lost the Tory-party leadership, Douglas Hurd, who stood to succeed her, found his Eton background being used against him. “I thought I was running for leadership of the Conservative Party,” he complained, “not some demented Marxist sect.” Hurd lost the election – and the keys to 10 Downing Street – to John Major, a state-educated former insurance clerk.
Tony Blair’s New Labour administration of the late 1990s and early 2000s married Thatcher’s brassy meritocracy with a social conscience. Oxford, Cambridge and the other major universities came under pressure to admit more state-educated pupils, and private schools were told to share their facilities with publicly funded neighbours or forfeit the tax breaks to which they, as charities, were entitled. In 1999, in a clear sign that the school could no longer count on its old links to parliament, almost 700 hereditary peers (many if not most of them OES) were expelled from the House of Lords.
In any case by now Eton had read the runes. There was a feeling among masters and governors that the school needed to raise standards in order to maintain market share in the new, more meritocratic Britain – to keep feeding boys to Oxford and Cambridge; to keep producing prime ministers – and a more competitive admissions system was the key. But the school had an image problem. It was widely considered a closed shop that would favour the dim and idle viscount over the up-and-coming City trader’s brilliant, motivated son, with the result that the City trader didn’t apply. The school’s policy of allowing parents to register their sons at birth for the so-called “Eton List” exemplified the school’s built-in prejudice in favour of its own. The Eton List effectively allowed an OE to sew up a place for his son while the boy was in nappies.
In 1990 the Eton List was abolished and a decade later a uniform entrance test and interview were introduced for all would-be entrants at the age of 11, under which the children of OES enjoyed no head start over the sons of people who had not been privately educated, or, for that matter, the offspring of successful Pakistani immigrants or Malaysian electronic-chip manufacturers. In time the tests got harder, the yearly intake cleverer, and the dim, idle viscounts were turned away. (Clever, industrious viscounts continued to get in.) Aided by its proximity to London, whose attractiveness as a safe deposit box for the super-wealthy was on the rise, the school became heavily oversubscribed. (In the 1950s the school had empty places.) Each year, around five and a half boys compete for each of the 260 places on offer.
Although Eton’s internal reforms were well under way by the time Tony Little, Henderson’s predecessor, took over in 2002, this former scholar (an Etonian in the 1960s, he was the first member of his family to be educated over the age of 14) introduced them to a sceptical world. He was “more foreign secretary than home secretary”, as one master recalls, giving interviews and making friends with educational reformers in the Blair government; his railing against the “deadly cloud of class awareness” rates as one of the more unexpected interventions from an Eton headmaster.
Under Little, Eton sponsored a state boarding school up the road in Ascot and a sixth-form college in the London borough of Newham. Bursary schemes were also set up by wealthy OES. At first, bringing in boys from some of the poorest parts of Britain and overseas turned out to be surprisingly difficult; heads weren’t keen on losing their brightest boys, and parents needed some convincing that Eton wasn’t another planet. A documentary about three Eton scholarship boys that was shown on the BBC’s children’s channel in 2014 led to a spike in applications, the school’s access officer told me, “not because parents saw it, but because their sons did, and thought, ‘I’d like to do that.’” Of two former bursary boys in their 20s I recently spoke to, one has gone on to become a speech-writer for a Conservative MP and aims to go into parliament; another is a rising actor.
Changes to the admissions policy have seen the school’s non-Anglo-Saxon intake rise considerably, though for all the foreign names one sees on pigeon holes in each house, Eton remains a “British” school, and its policy of diversifying its intake seems aimed at preventing it from being captured by any particular sub-group of the global elite. Traditionalists have chafed at the more international atmosphere, however, and Little described how one “finger-jabbing” OE accused him of being a “socialist who won’t rest until you have built a mosque on the school playing fields”.
Visiting Eton this spring, I spent an hour in College Library, watching the school’s Arabic master show three 16-year-old Palestinians some medieval manuscripts that the school had recently purchased, among them a page from a ninth-century Kufic Koran. Born in refugee camps in Lebanon, these boys had been flown to Britain for interview. Come September, two of them will be in tails.
Little’s memorial at Eton is a shiny research complex, the donor-funded Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning, which joined forces with Harvard to advance research into the adolescent brain – all synaptic pruning and neural pathways. The centre’s mission statement is a slightly laboured attempt to establish Britain’s poshest school as a public good: “we want Eton and the wider UK to be at the forefront of new developments in teaching and learning, for the benefit of all.”
The new Eton – friendly to the international plutocracy while also containing strong elements of political correctness – naturally went down badly with the established Eton families whose names adorn the war-memorial plaques and the sporting cups, and whose sons have been rejected in big numbers. In 2009, at a reunion I attended, Waldegrave delivered a speech lauding diversity of intake and beating the drum for an appeal. “They want our money,” my neighbour growled, “but not our sons.” In the main, however, the old guard seems resigned to its demotion, in part because, however exercised they are by the newcomers, many OES would be unable to afford the school even if their sons were admitted.
My father paid around £6,000 per year (around £14,500 today) for me to go to Eton in the late 1980s. The annual fees are now £34,000 ($50,000, or about £7,000 more than the average annual wage in Britain). The merely well off – the country solicitors and provincial landowners who once formed the school’s backbone – have been priced out. In the words of one OE, “many people in my circle have decided that it’s not worth it, and that a good state school will do just as well.”
To say that there is a cultural divide between the old Eton and the new one would be an understatement. Traditional parents wince as they describe corporate-hospitality tents and sushi bars being erected by brash parvenus for the Fourth of June, the school’s annual shindig (which is not, of course, held on June 4th). Back in the 1980s it was hard-boiled eggs and wine out of a box, consumed while rocking on one’s haunches on a picnic blanket.
For all the talk of 270 bursary boys and rising, furthermore, the vaunted egalitarianism of the new Eton is not always obvious. “We tried to identify the bursary boys who are with my son,” remarked a pupil’s mother, “but his year group includes two oligarchs’ sons and a family with four children all at different English boarding schools. Our suspicions fell on the parents of an Indian boy but then we bumped into them while skiing in Val d’Isère.”
Some newcomers feel that change hasn’t gone far enough. As an American mother said, “you still get some students who would have been there 100 years ago, and they’re not always the cleverest. But”, she went on with evident relief, “they don’t dominate.” Her only regret is that Little didn’t bring in girls. Henderson is rumoured to want to abolish tails, though that would face opposition from the boys, who are attached, in quite a sweet way, to Etonian traditions.
Inevitably, the cultural divisions felt by parents are less important to the pupils, in part because the uniform has the advantage of flattening socio-economic disparities. One former bursary boy told me, “Only after I left the school, and visited my friends in the amazing flats they had been given by their parents, did I realise just how rich they were.”
With every place at Eton so keenly contested, enterprising parents sometimes try the back door. The recently retired head of admissions, Charles Milne, was visited by a famous Russian oligarch whose son had been placed on a waiting list after failing to win a place in the entrance test. “They crowded into my little office,” Milne explained, “the Russian and his two bodyguards – one of them eight foot tall. I began explaining how the system works, that other boys would have to give up their places for his son to get in.” Milne had not got far before the oligarch raised a hand to silence him. “Mr Milne,” he said, “I won’t waste your time. When you have decided what needs to be done for my son to get his place, you will tell me.” The boy ended up at another school. Another very rich foreigner, whose son had been rejected, phoned Milne to tell him he was a “fucking bastard”. It became an in-joke between Milne and Little. “When I went to see the headmaster, he would greet me, ‘hello, fucking bastard’.”
Given the intense competition to get a place, it’s no wonder that the waiting room before the test (much harder than the one I took) is like the Russian roulette scene in “The Deer Hunter”. Children sit ashen-faced while their parents confer in whispers. No one speaks to anyone else; the tension is palpable. Some boys burst into tears when they get into the interview room.
The contest isn’t simply between candidates. It’s a battle of wits between a school whose proclaimed intention is to identify deserving talent and ambition, and parents who will do everything to stack things in their child’s favour. Well-off, well-organised parents prepare their sons ruthlessly, hiring tutors, making the boys do ceaseless verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests and sending them to interview classes to learn how to be sparky and empathetic. The school is wise to these constantly evolving efforts to game the system, however, and a lot of boys who have done brilliantly in the computerised test are turned down because they aren’t “interesting” at interview. “If a boy makes me laugh,” says one of the school’s interviewers, “he stands a good chance of getting in.”
The battle to enter Eton is the first exchange in a relationship between parents, boys and school that is characterised by high expectations. The rich parents want their kids to flourish and go on to an excellent university, preferably Oxford or Cambridge. The school wants these parents to show their appreciation in five figures. The bursary boys need to validate the decision to give them bursaries. Meanwhile the OES bite their fingernails and hope that the 20% figure won’t go down or the fees rise even further.
The story of Eton’s reconquest of the commanding heights of Britain is one of gradual rehabilitation. With the weakening of the hard left, the prospect of private schools being abolished receded, while Eton’s efforts to present itself less as a throwback to an earlier age than a guarantor of achievement in the current one began to pay dividends. Though confessing to an Eton education remains a conversation-stopper in liberal-left north London, in general the school has become less of a lightning rod for class resentment. And over the past decade OES have become more pervasive than ever.
Back in the 1950s it was the fact of having been to Eton, more than the education you received there, which set you up for success. Now the inverse is true. The teaching is superb, the facilities unparalleled, the results impressive. This year 85 Etonians were offered places at Oxford or Cambridge. St Paul’s, Westminster and Winchester have higher Oxbridge admission rates, but then those schools always specialised in cultivating clever boys. What’s interesting about Eton is the way it changed its focus from class to brains. The school has seen off the threats to its continued relevance by taking in clever boys, and sending out cleverer young men into a world that no longer defers to inherited privilege, and prizes cleverness and ambition above all.
This shift in strategy has changed the culture of the school. The ordeal of the entrance test; the upwardly mobile parents; the fact that the boys know they got into the school on their own merits, not because their fathers are OES – all this militates against the studied unconcern, the famous “entitlement”, that was the default pose of Etonians in the 1980s. Just as it was intensely uncool to be industrious then, now the opposite is the case. “It’s the boy who doesn’t take advantage of all the opportunities at Eton who’s considered odd,” a current Etonian told me, “not those who do.”
A strong work ethic comes naturally in a school that opts in to the hardest public exams and fosters competitive relationships between pupils. One recent Etonian noticed this cultural peculiarity while observing a debate at St Paul’s, Concord, a posh American boarding school. (Eton’s debating teams often sweep the board at inter-school competitions.) “The Americans were elaborately polite to each other,” he recalled, “whereas at Eton we could be brutal, saying, ‘that’s an incredibly stupid thing to say’.”
More than schools with higher Oxbridge acceptance rates, Eton stresses activities outside the classroom. Drama, one of its particular strengths, is an opportunity for collective endeavour that also contributes to the legendary Etonian self-assurance. The production budget at the 400-seat Farrer Theatre is higher than that at one of Britain’s top drama schools. No wonder scouts and agents are often to be spotted there, looking for the next Eddie Redmayne – one of Eton’s many recent showbiz alumni.
The investment in a wide range of extra-curricular interests may help explain why, when it comes to success defined more broadly than through exam results, Eton comes top. According to the Sutton Trust, a charity which works to widen opportunity, the school educates just 0.04% of Britain’s secondary school population, but some 4% of nearly 8,000 “leading people” whose education the trust tracked were OES. Eton produces more than three times as many big cheeses as its nearest rival, Winchester (Henderson’s alma mater). Taking into account Eton’s larger student body, its high-achiever output rate is 50% higher.
And that figure underplays Eton’s success, for OES cluster at the very pinnacle of British life. The closer you get to power and achievement, in other words, the more likely you are to run into one. David Cameron and his rival for the soul of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, both attended the school. So did Prince William and Prince Harry, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the actors Tom Hiddleston and Damian Lewis as well as Redmayne, the adventurers Bear Grylls and Ranulph Fiennes and the Nobel prize-winning biologist Sir John Gurdon. The law, business and banking fester with Old Etonians.
It’s very likely that Eton has a higher “strike rate” than it did in the 1980s, when for every top banker or ambassador there were one or two who conspicuously failed to enter well-paid careers (or indeed careers of any sort), and ended up cultivating marijuana or running a small country estate into the ground. No father of an Etonian in the 1980s would have admitted to thinking about anything so crass as a “return” on his investment, nor were we boys party to our parents’ financial affairs. This too has changed. A recent bursary boy who attended the school with a third of his fees remitted told me that his parents, both teachers at state schools, had sold the family home in order to afford the other two-thirds.
Britain no longer has a ruling class, and the boys who enter Eton are anyway too varied to constitute one. Yet by the time they leave they belong to something like an emerging global elite. They have in common brains, determination and, in many cases, an aspirational family that sets great store by worldly success. These qualities got them to Eton, and they are deployed again and again to ensure they get the most out of the experience. Whether it’s arranging holiday internships with City law firms, Skype tutorials in the run-up to a geography exam, or a reels refresher course before the Caledonian Ball, parents are constantly (and expensively) bolting on all kinds of optional, mini-advantages to the considerable advantage of an Eton education. The great project of modern elite parenting is all about leaving nothing to chance.
There is, of course, a natural tension between the school’s role in this enterprise and its ambition to be an engine of social mobility – just as there is at the American Ivy League universities that Eton’s admissions system seeks to emulate. A small number of Etonians are poor; some are only modestly well-off; but the majority of them are seriously wealthy by the standards of most of the world. One of the consequences of Eton’s transformation is thus to ensure that the children of the very rich stay that way.
For all its inbuilt advantages, the task facing Eton at the turn of the millennium was a tricky one. It needed to entrench its position at the top of British life while carrying out controversial and difficult reforms. Few would argue that the changes have been anything but necessary and skilfully accomplished, but they have come at an intangible price. A recently retired master complained that teaching has got more boring because boys constantly harp on the need to stick to the syllabus: “are we going to need this for the exam, sir?”
Eton used to have a strong sideline in rebels and oddballs. My time there was enriched by exposure to some truly unusual characters, both masters and boys, which engendered a tolerance of human foibles and acted as vital redress from a hierarchical, rules-based institution. Inevitably, as the school has grown more concerned with outcomes and assessments and ever keener to maximise the use to which its facilities are put, the eccentrics have been purged from the institution.
The value of such people is hard to quantify; their achievement doesn’t show through in the exam results, but in the diffusion of a spirit of irreverence and scepticism. One boy in my house, William Sinclair, was a brilliant subversive and satirist of the school; his lampooning of the authorities and disrespect for conventional hierarchies among the boys punctured the pretension and self-regard to which Eton is easily prone. William’s planting of a live chicken in our housemaster’s bathtub was the least of his misdemeanours.
My tutor over my final years was Michael Kidson, a lop-shouldered historian who terrorised us in thrilling, beautiful, confident English, threw blackboard rubbers at boys who offended against syntax and grammar – I got one in the head for pluralising “protagonist” – and defended his oversexed spaniel for trying to solace itself against our thighs. (“Nothing wrong with a young man wanting a wank!”) Above all, Kidson was loyal and would fight fiercely for you if you got into trouble; several boys escaped expulsion thanks to his efforts. On all sorts of levels it is hard to imagine either Sinclair or Kidson being welcomed to today’s Eton, but back then they were among the school’s best-loved figures and knowing them seems as useful to me now as any City internship would have been.
Eton isn’t alone among reformed institutions to have got duller as it has got better, and few of the current boys’ families will rue the absence of eccentrics if their son gets his Oxbridge place. The school has gone from being a rite of passage for a now-defunct upper class to a coalition of different sorts of people who have signed up to an ambitious agenda that may not, in fact, be their own. If Eton hasn’t quite become the liberal, socially transformative institution the reformists seek, it is undeniably more discerning in allocating one of the best starts in life that money (or brains, or ambition) can get you.•