Eton's headmaster on abolishing private schools, Gove's reforms and free schools

Web-only extracts from Jason Cowley's interview with Eton headmaster Tony Little.

In this week's issue, NS editor Jason Cowley interviews Eton headmaster Tony Little and, with an eye to the growing clique of Old Etonians around David Cameron, asks "how the old ruling class became the new ruling class". You'll have to pick up the magazine to read the full piece (go on, subscribe), but here are some extracts, which didn't make the print version, which I thought might be of interest to Staggers readers. 

On abolishing private schools (or at least their charitable status)

I’m sure there are people who would wish to do exactly that [abolish private schools' charitable status]. I have no doubt. Outright abolition would be incredibly difficult, not least in terms of international law, freedom of choice is enshrined in the UN.

The charitable status issue is an interesting one. When this became lively a few years ago, and the charity commission started looking at it more closely, one of the interesting things was that schools like this, that haven’t sought to trumpet what they do...were suddenly being ‘outed’ about their charitable activity. However you want to cut it, this wasn’t something dreamt up in the past couple of years. We spend about £5m a year on bursaries. For over a quarter of a century we’ve run a summer school for state school students in preparation for university, about half of whom have ended up at Oxford and Cambridge. It’s not something we’ve thought to headline anywhere, it’s just something we’ve done. 

On whether public schools feel threatened by academies and free schools

I don’t feel threatened at all, we deliver a very distinct education and it is attractive to people around the world as well as in this country. We are in a different situation than an academically-focused day school. There is a huge difference between London and the rest of the country. I can see that if you are trying to run a high-quality academic day school and a free school opened down the road it could be challenging, but one of the great things about the independent sector is its resilience over the years. I have been a head for 25 years and we have had more than one downturn and this one is particularly savage. In the 1990s we had problems as well, with the high interest rates and the major recession. At the time I was the head of an independent school in Essex and there were quite a lot of parents at that time who were paying school fees out of own income or from their business, that was a very tough time. You have these waves of difficulties, but the independent sector as a whole has learned to adapt and move on. I am generally positive about the situation as long as the sector remains sensitive and responds to what is going on.

On the good and the bad in Gove's reforms

The good bit is rattling the cage, and rattling it mightily. We now have these pinpricks of light, of some outstanding practice. If I have to identify two positive changes in the travel of direction, the first is the Teach First scheme. We now have a quality of young people thinking of going into teaching, the like of which we haven’t had. It is the single best initiative that has happened in my professional lifetime.

...

The second thing is a by-product, which may not have been an intent, but it is palpable. It is the level of pragmatic conversation going on across the sector and between different people. When I started as a head 20 years ago, there was no conversation at all at local state schools, the drawbridge was up. Now, for example, I have a phone call from a chap I have never met before who is head of a converted academy in Hull and he’s seen something I’ve written about GCSEs, he’s got some ideas about GCSEs and ‘chat, chat, chat,’ would he like to come down to Eton? ‘Yes’. So we spent an afternoon talking about GCSE reform. That would have been inconceivable ten years ago. Certainly 20 years ago. 

...

The fact that I see no joined up plan [the downside of Gove's reforms]. Nationally – I’m talking about. That’s the worry to me...Huge amount of reform. Maybe too much. I think most of the people I work with can’t see the big picture we are aiming for. People can see merit in the individual things that are going on, but we don’t yet see the whole picture.

The boys of Eton College stand as headmaster Tony Little leaves morning assembly. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
Show Hide image

I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war