Eaton grapples with England’s new thirst for equality

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

When he was first elected to Dudley membership in 2004, Patrick Harley never imagined he would welcome an Eton manager into his town. However, it is already his “black country” city, among the most disadvantaged 20% in the UK, which was chosen last spring to host the “Eton of the North”. An eclectic institution where students from humble backgrounds will be able to benefit from the well-known methods of training 20 British Prime Ministers, most prominent diplomats, civil servants, generals, archbishops, business owners and of course, Princes William and Harry. “When we heard the news, we were confused. I think of all the opportunities that will be available to the young people in the region.

Eaton in the Midlands, a post-industrial area in the heart of England? It is in keeping with the highly selective “public school” times. To hear its director, Simon Henderson, the days of Eaton’s “nursery of the aristocracy,” as some call it, are over. The school needs to “broaden the talent base” and see itself as “a charitable foundation for the development of education,” he said in a recent interview.

There is still a long way to go for the school whose tuition fees are around £45,000 a year. Few students benefit from the scholarship, but only a few, 83 out of 1,300, are exempt from tuition fees. When one enters an Eaton container, it is the weight of tradition that particularly strikes. Around the hundred-year-old walls, a few high school students chatting in their uniforms–a tailcoat and black jacket–as they have since the nineteenth century.e century. You’ll Only Find Boys There: The mere mention of opening Eaton to Girls is controversial. In the courtyard, a statue of Henry VI stands in front of a war memorial, an entire wall covered with the names of the young men who died during the two world wars.

The principal’s office is accessed through a corridor decorated with busts of Eton-educated figures: on high wooden planks are engraved the names of students distinguished for their academic excellence, including … Boris Johnson. Pierce Blofield, a former pupil at the school, remembers crossing this corridor on his first day back to school, at the age of thirteen. “I can still see us all squatting in the principal’s office who told us: ‘A third of British prime ministers have passed through Eaton. You are the elite.'”

Tradition from father to son

For a long time we went to Eaton from father to son. Until the 1990s, there was a list where former students could register their children from birth. “I was the thirteenth in my family to attend Eaton,” Pierce says. When I was seven years old, I went to a boarding school whose main goal was to get its students into Eton. The entrance exam was not too 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 habit of ‘grumbling’, the desire of the youngest students to serve the elderly, has now been abandoned. But according to him, education at Eton is not a road lined with roses. “There was never any physical violence, but it was psychological,” he says.

Playing sports is such an institution at Eton that the school has created its own specialties, such as “the wall game,” a type of rugby with impenetrable rules for the uninitiated.Eddie Keogh/Reuters

Even today, competition is evaluated at all levels. Bad copies are shredded in front of the entire class. At the end of the year, everyone knows who is the first and who is the last. The brightest students are entitled to wear a different tie, and those who reach the top ten wear their silver-buttoned jacket. The school reproduces a class system, the most common of which is the “pops” system, those students elected by their peers, a priori to enforce discipline in the school. Boris Johnson was one of them, while his Downing Street predecessor, David Cameron, failed to run. It is said that the political rivalry between them dates back to a large extent …

Sports, a foundation in Eaton

Competition is also rooted in exercise, an institution in Eaton. So much so that the school devised its own systems, such as the “wall game”, a kind of rugby with unbreakable rules for beginners. The conditions here are particularly favorable: Eaton has a nine-hole golf course, a 25-meter pool and its own paddling pitch, which was provided even for the London Olympics in 2012.

When he visited Eaton, Patrick Harley was shocked by the maturity of the young men he met. “You can really see future leaders in them. From day one, they are treated like adults, and they learn to make their own decisions. They also have exceptional connections to the political world.

Small space for social mobility

In post-Brexit England, this small world that leaves little room for social mobility is becoming increasingly controversial. Like ENA in France, Eaton occupies a special place in the collective imagination, sometimes disproportionately, to the point of taking Thunder systematically into the debate about inequality.

When Labor activists launched a campaign to abolish private schools in the UK, they chose the name “Abolish Eton”. One such activist, Robert Poole, a secondary school teacher in Bolton, northern England says: “I’ve lived through the daily cuts in public schools for ten years. One wonders when he sees the tax benefits of private schools and their luxury facilities. In the viewfinder: their status as a charitable organization exempts them. From various taxes, value-added tax and property tax in particular.

Tom Richmond, director of EDSK, an education think tank, notes: “These are huge advantages. If these schools were subject to VAT, parents would pay 20% higher tuition fees.” To him, the questioning goes back to the coming to power of Theresa May, In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum.” She was the one who started saying that private schools should support public schools more and accommodate more scholarship holders. This is a discourse we did not hear 30 years ago.

There is such a “pipeline” that goes from private schools to “Oxbridge”, and then to positions of responsibility in our country.

Rebecca Montacote, researcher at the Sutton Trust

For him, Brexit changed the debate in several ways: “Suddenly the politicians realized that millions of people felt they were not being heard. Robert Verkaek, author of a critical essay on the role of private schools in British society, argues that they are “really on the defensive, because They have to justify the benefits they give their students, just because their parents have full bank accounts. “For the younger generation, who have a sense of going back into adulthood without having the same opportunities as their parents, it just doesn’t work anymore,” he says.

social peace crisis

There is no shortage of studies that show the crisis of social peace. In 2019, a report by the Sutton Trust showed that 39% of Britain’s elite attended a private school, five times the proportion of pupils studying there (7%). This is the case for nearly 29% of parliamentarians, 48% of the chairs of the FTSE, the index of the largest listed companies in London, 44% of newspaper columnists, and 52% of diplomats. In some professions, such as judges, the percentage is as high as 71%. As for Eton alumni, they only monopolize 10% of Who’s Who entries, according to a survey by Keystone Tutors. “There is a ‘pipeline’ going from private schools to Uxbridge, and then to positions of responsibility in our country,” notes Rebecca Montacott, a researcher at the Sutton Trust.

Also under pressure to democratize the recruitment process, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are changing their admissions policy. Every year, the quota of new students from public schools is scrutinized by the media. And their number is significantly increasing, while the entrances to the young “Etonians” are decreasing. In 2021, Eaton sent 48 students to Uxbridge, up from 99 in 2014. For the first time, the school passed Brampton Academy in Newham, a school in London’s East End where nearly half of young people live below the poverty line.

“Things are changing because Oxford and Cambridge have acknowledged that their admissions policy is problematic, but it will take time to see the effects,” says Rebecca Montacot. But some families are already questioning the profitability of an Eton education if it is no longer the same as the starting point for top universities.

stormy context

Against this stormy backdrop, young Simon Henderson – thirty-nine at the time – was appointed Director of Eaton in 2015. Since then, he has committed to expanding access to Eaton and increasing scholarships so that by 2025, 10% of students do not pay tuition fees . He also touched on the traditions dear to the “old Etons”, as the former students of the school were called. The traditional Eaton chase is said to be on its way out, as is the fierce cricket match that has pitted Eaton against rival Harrow every year for over 200 years. Perhaps one of the few sports competitions where fans chanted: “We have more prime ministers than you.” By the same logic the school established a partnership with Dudley High School, as well as two other towns in the north of England, to export its methods to less favored regions.

This sweep is not to everyone’s taste. For the conservative weekly magazine The Spectator, it is “one of the most controversial periods in the school’s 580-year history.” She was seen by her former students as being on the “Walkie” road. By opening up more, will Eaton lose his soul? Patrick Harley disagrees in his book Dudley: “Don’t be fooled by medieval yards and backcoats. Eaton 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 student at Eton, Pierce Blofield isn’t particularly nostalgic. Moreover, he did not choose a school like Eton for his children. “It’s a bubble where you only hang out with the self-chosen elite. He says a little ‘do or die.’ But there is one thing he regrets at the time: ‘The school gave us strong skills. It is an attribute of Eaton that is sometimes overlooked in today’s debate. »

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