Eton: why the old boys’ network still flourishes

The new archbishop of Canterbury is the latest Old Etonian to make it to the top of the establishment. But what is it about the school that makes it such a breeding ground for leadership? And how is it now getting involved with state schools? This is from the Guardian…

In the Porter’s Lodge at Eton, a surprisingly small, panelled room that guards the main entrance to probably the world’s most famous and self-conscious school, a recent issue of the Week magazine lies on a table between two chairs for visitors. On the cover is a cartoon of David Cameron, the 19th Old Etonian to be British prime minister, and a photo of the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who may become the 20th. The magazine is well-thumbed: outsiders remain as fascinated by Eton’s influence as the school is.

On the official Eton website, an elegant sales brochure with pictures of sunlit old school walls and pupils in their ancient, photogenic uniforms, there is an extensive section on “famous Old Etonians”. The list of most recent “OEs” is startling, even to anyone well aware that elite Britain can be narrow. There are smooth media grandees (Geordie Greig, Nicholas Coleridge) and prickly dissenters (the New Left Review veteran Perry Anderson); lifestyle-sellers both macho (Bear Grylls) and gentle (Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall); environmentalists (Jonathon Porritt) and climate change sceptics (Matt Ridley); actors (Hugh Laurie, Dominic West, Damian Lewis) and princes (Harry and William); rising Tory MPs (Rory Stewart, Kwasi Kwarteng) and people who are likely to interview them (BBC deputy political editor James Landale). Reading the long, hypnotic index of Eton eminences, back to the college’s foundation in the 15th century, British public life begins to seem little more than Eton – a school of 1,300 13- to 18-year-old boys – talking to itself. And the list is not even comprehensive: at the time of writing, no one has thought to include Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

But the power of an institution can be more than its people. Under the coalition, the patchy egalitarianism of postwar state schooling is giving way to a more traditional philosophy: stricter uniforms and rules, pupils organised into private school-style “houses”, more powerful headteachers, more competition and difference between schools. It is a philosophy increasingly friendly to Eton. The current headmaster, Tony Little, remembers his first headship at another private school in the late 80s: “The local comprehensive wouldn’t invite me over the threshold. That has changed massively. The number of phone calls I get from heads of academies has greatly risen in the last two, three years. They want to visit, they want to collaborate.” Eton now has state “partner schools” in nearby Slough, and this year joined with seven other private schools to open a free school in Stratford in east London.

Other trends are working in Eton’s favour. With annual fees of £32,067 – more than the average after-tax British household income – Eton is, more than ever, “a luxury brand”, as Greig puts it in fellow Old Etonian Nick Fraser’s 2006 book The Importance of Being Eton. As the super-rich and the wish to imitate them have strengthened, Greig continues, “luxury brands have come back”. Like Britain’s many other luxury businesses, Eton has improved its product. “When I was there in 1958 to 1963, the bottom 40% of boys did absolutely no work,” says Simon Head, fellow of the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University. “That’s gone. Eton has hunkered down. It’s mobilised itself for the global economy.”

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