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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.