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.

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Absolutely Fashion showed what fashion week is really like: nasty, brutish and short

With fake meetings about fake covers, the documentary gave a glimpse into the abyss at the heart of the fashion world.

London Fashion Week is the sad little sister of the one in Paris, where I once attended a Valentino couture show dressed by Gap, watched what looked like live-action anorexia nervosa at Armani and got into a fight at Chanel. Did a man wearing a lion’s head on his real head look stupid? Yes, said I. No, said the fashion ­journalist, with fury.

Fashion Week had a small elegy this year – a BBC2 documentary called Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue, which was fantastically misnamed. There is nothing inside Vogue, except a vague groping for novelty, which is technically an abyss. But that did not stop the programme’s director, Richard Macer, from sitting in Vogue House for nine months, watching women smell each other’s mascara. In the way of a certain type of media, he seems to have emerged more ignorant than when he began. This is the central principle of fashion: stupefy the buyer and she will pay to be reborn as something uglier.

“He doesn’t understand fashion,” said one critic, which I think meant: “He should have licked Karl Lagerfeld’s shoes while crying about belts.” To this critic, that is understanding fashion. It is a religious hierarchy. (That no one has asked Lagerfeld what he has done to his face, and why, proves this. When I met Lagerfeld in Paris, he was behind a velvet rope. I wondered if he sleeps with it.) Macer is a sexist, suggested another critic, who seemed to think that any industry that employs women in large numbers – human surrogacy farms, for instance, or Bangladeshi textile factories, or German super-brothels – is feminist. This is the stupidest definition of feminism I have yet heard and I have fashion to thank for it.

Macer was too frightened to ask questions about exploitation, pollution or the haunting spectacle of malnourished adolescents inciting self-hatred in older females in pursuit of profit, and he is not alone. I read no insights about London Fashion Week, but I do not care about clothes. He was so cowed by his access as to be undeserving of it, and Absolutely Fashion was as much about the laziness and commercial imperatives of modern journalism as it was about fashion, from which we should expect nothing.

Macer had a tiny scoop: British Vogue learned that American Vogue was running a cover of the singer Rihanna in the same calendar month. It decided to run early and people stayed up all night anxiously repaginating. He had the opportunity to ask Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of the US magazine, about it, but a staffer begged him not to. So he didn’t. He segued from journalist to PR. He drank the opiate – and I understand this, because if you don’t, you won’t survive. “Come again,” Jean Paul Gaultier once told me in Paris. His meaning was: “. . . but only if you love my clothes”.

In one scene, the actor Hugh Jackman was photographed in a bathtub at Claridge’s Hotel in London. He was fully clothed and looked marginally more stupid than he does dressed as the genetically mutated wolf man Wolverine, but that is not the point. “Come and see how handsome you are, Hugh,” cooed a Vogue woman. I wouldn’t have minded Jackman preening over an image of himself in private, but this exposed a truth: some journalism is celebrity PR.

Elsewhere, Kate Moss did a shoot wearing clothes that belonged to the Rolling Stones. It was based, she said, on a well-known shoot that they once did “in exile”. She meant tax exile, which was funny.

That Vogue, which is still, at least nominally, a magazine, should devote itself to this junk is not excused by an intellectual curiosity so dulled that one executive said that New York Fashion Week had “a sort of Lego element to it”.

British Vogue is edited by Alexandra Shulman, and in the manner of print media with long-standing editors – she has been there for 24 years – it is, in essence, a cult. In this case, a passive-aggressive-ocracy. (People are always surprised to learn that magazines are tyrannies, but there it is.)

I do not know whether Shulman wanted Macer there or not, or whether she didn’t have the clout to stop it, but once he was in, she treated him with the bored derision of a woman contemplating a ball gown chewed by moths. Shulman has the face of a woman who should get out while she can. In her only revealing scene, she had to choose between two front covers. One was “artistic” because it showed Kate Moss’s knickers; the other was unthreatening because it showed only Kate Moss’s face. “My heart is never allowed to rule,” she said, and she laughed. But I think she meant it.

She lied to Macer, too, holding fake meetings about fake covers so the world would not learn that Vogue had, by its cracked standards, a huge scoop: the Duchess of Cambridge would appear on the cover of the 100th-anniversary issue in a hat.

Absolutely Fashion also taught us, had we not known, that fashion is peopled by privileged creatures who are impervious to the extent of their privilege and who are, therefore, bad journalists, because they cannot even effectively interview themselves. For instance, the photographer Mary McCartney, one of Paul’s daughters, told Macer that she had never got work because her father was a member of the Beatles.

To be oblivious to reality is essential in fashion. Everyone is equal under the skirt. Yet McCartney flourishes because of the doctrine of the age: the already prosperous are more worthy of prosperity.

Not everyone seemed so disingenuous. One woman described the search for the non-existent novelty as “exhausting”. She no longer believed in the cult.

Absolutely Fashion, if you watch it critically, is more interesting than Macer perhaps allowed himself to dream. In its way, it embodied any fashion week anywhere: nasty, brutish and short. 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times