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Eton grappling with England’s newfound thirst for equality

Posted Sep 6, 2022 7:00 AMUpdated on Sep 6, 2022 at 7:17 am

When he was first elected to Dudley in 2004, Patrick Harley never imagined one day welcoming the headmaster of Eton to his municipality. Yet it is indeed his town in the “black country”, among the 20% most disadvantaged in the United Kingdom, which was selected last spring to host an “Eton of the North”. A selective establishment where students from modest backgrounds will be able to benefit from the methods known to have trained 20 British Prime Ministers, the most eminent diplomats, civil servants, generals, archbishops, business owners and of course Princes William and Harry. “When we heard the news, we were overwhelmed. I think of all the opportunities this will open up for young people in the region,” he said.

An “Eton” in the Midlands, a post-industrial region in the heart of England? It is in tune with the times for the very select “public schools”. To hear its director, Simon Henderson, the days when Eton was ‘the nursery of the aristocracy’, as some call it, are over. The school needs to “broaden the talent pool” and sees itself as “a charity to advance education,” as he said in an interview recently.

There is still a long way to go for the school, whose tuition fees reach some 45,000 pounds per year. A few students benefit from a scholarship, but only a handful, 83 out of 1,300, are exempt from tuition fees. When one enters the enclosure of Eton, it is especially the weight of the traditions which strikes. Around the hundred-year-old walls, a few high school students chat, dressed in their uniform – tailcoat and black vest – the same since the 19th century.e century. You will only find boys there: the mere mention of opening Eton to girls is controversial. In the courtyard, the statue of Henry VI stands in front of a war memorial, an entire wall covered with the names of young people who died during the two world wars.

The director’s office is accessed through a corridor decorated with the busts of personalities educated at Eton: on high wooden panels are engraved the names of students distinguished for their academic excellence, including … Boris Johnson. Piers Blofeld, a former pupil of the school, remembers well having crossed this corridor the day of his first return to school, at the age of thirteen. “I can still see us all sitting cross-legged in the office of the director who told us: ‘A third of British prime ministers have been through Eton. You are the elite.’ »

A tradition from father to son

For a long time we went to Eton from father to son. Until the 1990s, there was even a list where former students could register their child from birth. “I was the thirteenth in my family to attend Eton,” says Piers. When I was seven, I went to a boarding school whose main objective was to get its students into Eton. The entrance exam was not so difficult for me, as I had been preparing for it for five years. »

When he entered, in the early 1980s, corporal punishment was no longer practiced there. The custom of “fagging”, wanting the youngest students to serve the older ones, had just been abandoned. But according to him, an education at Eton is not a path lined with roses. “There was never any physical violence, but it was psychological,” he says.

The practice of sport is an institution at Eton, to the point that the school has invented its own disciplines, such as the “wall game”, a kind of rugby with impenetrable rules for the uninitiated.Eddie Keogh/Reuters

Even today, competition is valued at all levels. Bad copies are torn up in front of the whole class. At the end of the year, everyone knows who is first, who is last. The brightest students have the right to wear a different tie, those who arrive in the Top 10 wear their jacket with silver buttons. The school reproduces a caste system, the most popular being that of the “pops”, these students elected by their peers, a priori to enforce discipline in the school. Boris Johnson was one of them, while his predecessor in Downing Street, David Cameron, failed to get elected. It is said that their political rivalry goes back as far…

Sport, an institution at Eton

Competition is also rooted in the practice of sport, an institution at Eton. So much so that the school has invented its own disciplines, such as the “wall game”, a kind of rugby with impenetrable rules for the uninitiated. The conditions here are particularly favourable: Eton has a nine-hole golf course, a 25-metre swimming pool and its own rowing course, which was even made available for the London Olympics in 2012.

When he visited Eton, Patrick Harley was struck by the maturity of the young people he met. “You could really see the future leaders in them. From day one, they are treated like adults, they are taught to make their own decisions. They also have exceptional links with the political world,” he observed.

Little room for social mobility

In post-Brexit England, this small world that leaves little room for social mobility is increasingly controversial. Like the ENA in France, Eton occupies a special place in the collective imagination, sometimes disproportionate, to the point of systematically taking the thunder in the debate on inequalities.

When Labor Party activists launched a campaign to abolish private schools in the UK, they chose the name ‘Abolish Eton’. “I have experienced the daily cuts in public schools for ten years, says Robert Pool, one of these activists, a secondary school teacher in Bolton, in the north of England. One wonders when one sees the tax advantages of private schools and their luxurious facilities. In the viewfinder: their status as a charitable organization which exempts them from various taxes, VAT and property tax in particular.

“These are considerable advantages, notes Tom Richmond, director of the EDSK, a think tank specializing in education. If these schools were subject to VAT, parents would pay 20% higher tuition fees. “For him, the questioning dates back to the arrival of Theresa May in power, in the wake of the 2016 referendum. “It was she who started to say that private schools should support public schools more and accommodate more of scholarship holders. This is a discourse that we did not hear thirty years ago, ”he continues.

There is like a ‘pipeline’ that goes from private schools to ‘Oxbridge’, then to positions of responsibility in our country.

Rebecca Montacute researcher at the Sutton Trust

For him, Brexit has changed the debate in many ways: “Suddenly politicians realized that millions of people felt they were not being heard. Robert Verkaik, author of a critical essay on the role of private schools in British society, sees them “really on the defensive, because they have to justify the benefits they give to their students, just because their parents have full bank accounts. “For the younger generation, who have the feeling of returning to adulthood without having the same chances as their parents, it no longer works,” he says.

social ladder crisis

Studies showing the crisis of the social ladder are not lacking. In 2019, a report by the Sutton Trust showed that 39% of the British elite had attended a private school, five times more than the share of pupils who study there (7%). This is the case for nearly 29% of parliamentarians, 48% of the bosses of the FTSE, the index of the largest companies listed in London, 44% of columnists in newspapers and 52% of diplomats. In some professions, such as judges, the proportion even reaches 71%. As for Eton alumni, they monopolize just 10% of Who’s Who entries, according to a survey by the company Keystone Tutors. “There is a ‘pipeline’ that goes from private schools to ‘Oxbridge’, then to positions of responsibility in our country”, observes Rebecca Montacute, researcher at the Sutton Trust.

Also under pressure to democratize their recruitment, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are changing their admissions policy. Each year, the share of new students from public schools is scrutinized by the media. And their number is increasing markedly, while the entries of young “Etonians” are decreasing. In 2021, Eton sent 48 students to “Oxbridge”, up from 99 in 2014. For the first time, the school was overtaken by Brampton Academy in Newham, a school in London’s East End where near the half of young people live below the poverty line.

“Things are changing because Oxford and Cambridge have admitted that their admissions policy is problematic, but it will take time to see the effects,” says Rebecca Montacute. But some families are already wondering about the profitability of an education at Eton if it is no longer the same springboard for the best universities.

Stormy background

It was against this stormy backdrop that young Simon Henderson – thirty-nine at the time – was appointed Eton manager in 2015. Since then, he has been committed to widening access to Eton and increasing the scholarships so that, by 2025, 10% of students do not pay their tuition fees. He also tackled traditions dear to the “old Etonians”, as the former students of the school are called. Eton’s traditional chase is said to be on its way out, as is the fierce cricket match that has pitted Eton against rival Harrow every year for over 200 years. Perhaps one of the few sports competitions where supporters chant: “We have more prime ministers than you.” It is in the same logic that the school has created a partnership with the secondary school of Dudley, as well as two other towns in the north of England, to export its methods to the less favored regions.

This sweep is not to everyone’s taste. For the conservative weekly “The Spectator”, it is “one of the most controversial periods in the 580-year history” of the school. She would be perceived by her former students as being on the path of “wokism”. By opening up more, would Eton be losing its soul? Patrick Harley, in Dudley, disagrees: “Don’t be fooled by the medieval forecourt and the tailcoats. Eton has a rich history, but has always managed to adapt well. It is not for nothing that the school has a philosophy: you have to change to stay true to yourself. »

As a former Eton student, Piers Blofeld is not particularly nostalgic for the past. Besides, he did not choose a school like Eton for his children. “It’s a bubble where you only hang out with an elite who chose themselves. And it’s a bit of a do-it-or-die thing,” he says. But there is one thing he regrets about that time: “The school gave us solid skills. It’s a quality of Eton that, in today’s debate, is sometimes overlooked. »

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