Eton eternal: How one school came to dominate public life

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley speaks to Anthony Little, headmaster of Eton College, about the role of public schools, the new crop of Etonians ruling public life and Gove's education reforms.

New Statesman
Eton headmaster Tony Little argues that the demise of grammar schools has reduced social mobility. (Photo: Simon Roberts)

1.
The headmaster of Eton, Tony Little, turns to me, opens his arms expansively and lowers his well-modulated voice. “This is the one place where you can say that all Etonians have been,” he says. We are in Eton College Chapel and suddenly, on this grey, becalmed spring morning, it feels as if you have wandered into a place of great beauty but also ghosts. You sense, or imagine you do, something of the presence of all those boys who have gathered here before you, century after long century, in what has become the grandest and best-known boarding school in the world (basic annual fees: £32,067).

“Ritual and tradition are very important to us,” Little said to me earlier as we walked from his office to the chapel across School Yard, pausing to look at a statue of Henry VI (“he was not a very good king”), who founded Eton in 1440 as an institution to educate 70 poor boys. The headmaster is tall and straightbacked and has a neatly clipped grey moustache and unfussy spectacles. He is courteous and has the appearance and manner of a colonial administrator. The office adjacent to his belongs to the Provost of Eton, who just happens to be the former Conservative MP and life peer William Waldegrave. David Cameron has an office next to the Provost’s. All right, I made that last one up but the joke doing the rounds at Westminster is that it is only a matter of time before the Prime Minister opens a policy unit at his old school. Perhaps he already has.

2.
Eton: a word of just four letters but with a multiplicity of associations. Eton: a word synonymous with a certain sense of uppermiddle- class and aristocratic ease and entitlement. Eton: a word that inspires as much ridicule and anger as it does respect. Etonian: a word that can be used as a statement of fact, as a signifier of status and privileges from birth and as a pejorative adjective, depending on who is using it and in which context. “Eton Rifles”: an angry protest song by the new-wave band the Jam, inspired by the singer-songwriter Paul Weller’s recollection of boyhood visits to Slough and Eton and his festering sense of class resentment. Eton mess: a sweet and sickly pudding, but also a metaphor for what is going wrong for the Cameron government and for the larger failure of intergenerational social mobility in Britain in 2013. Eton style: pupils’ amusing spoof of the South Korean pop hit and YouTube sensation “Gangnam Style” by Psy, but also a sense of the school, in the language of free-market globalisation, as one of the ultimate luxury British brands, and especially desirable to international plutocrats. Old Etonian: David Cameron is one such, and the 19th British prime minister to have attended the renowned school in Berkshire.

“Are we seeing a resurgence of Etonians in public life?” Tony Little repeats my question as we settle down for tea in his office, which feels at once spacious and intimate. “I think they’ve been –what’s the Jimmy Hill phrase? – ‘there or thereabouts’. I think this is one of those little moments in history that won’t be repeated. I’m pleased that it’s not just the Conservative prime minister [who is an Etonian], but the Archbishop of Canterbury and actors [Eddie Redmayne, Damian Lewis, Dominic West], who have a rather different take on the world. And that reflects the Eton I live in. The exciting thing about being in a place like this is having bright, young, aspirational people who see the world in very different ways.

“Whether it tells us something about our society is altogether a different question and a more complex one. I hope it is telling us that we have reached a point of maturity in society, where looking forward rather than back is the bigger issue, and that we measure people on what they do, rather than where they have come from, wherever that background is. That is the optimistic view. Whether it holds up to scrutiny is rather more complicated.”

Little, aged 59, is an Etonian but an unusual one. “I came from a background that was so alien to any kind of educational experience. My father was a security guy at Heathrow and my mother was a secretary at the local hospital. I came in on a scholarship. I am the first male in my family to be educated over the age of 14. Not to be romantic about it, but that is a reason why I do the job: I feel an obligation to pay back.”

And yet the pessimistic view would suggest that social mobility is “flatlining”, as the former Labour MP and cabinet minister Alan Milburn warned at the launch last October of a government report on the subject, or has gone into reverse. “That is possible,” Little says, “and you can look at the statistics and compare the right and wrong of other issues, but personally I am not a fan of the elevenplus academic selections. But there is no doubt that the demise of the grammar schools has brought a reduction in social mobility.”

As he later says: “These days we have boys whose families live in castles and boys whose families live in inner-city tower blocks. And we don’t discriminate against the boys who come from castles.”     

Through the 1970s and 1980s the culture of many leading public schools changed and they became seriously academic institutions, in response to the competition from the old direct-grant grammar schools entering the private sector and charging fees. Where once it was mocked as a kind of “mixed-ability comprehensive for the landed classes”, Eton, too, was transformed. “The number of PhDs on the staff there is now very high, higher than some Oxbridge colleges,” says Andrew Adonis, the former Labour cabinet minister and educationalist. “When I was there recently, boys were sitting the King’s Scholarship exam, the most sought-after pinnacle of achievement for prep school boys and the extreme of selection. What people often forget is that schools like Eton have a tip-top grammar school within the larger school, with all its tradition and social exclusivity.

“This combination of extreme wealth and extreme academic selection puts Eton at the tip of both pinnacles, social and academic,” Adonis says. “Boys are not just self-confident and socially well connected; they have the ability to get very good degrees.”

In this way, schools such as Eton are creating a new kind of ruling class, similar in social background to the old ruling class that produced so many former Conservative cabinet ministers, but different in that they are now educated in a much more rigorously competitive academic environment than was typical of many public schools before the change in the 1970s. The new elite go straight from university into politics (as Cameron did) as members of what George Osborne calls the “guild” of professional politicians, entering Westminster as special advisers and progressing from there. It creates a peculiar form of conformity.

3.
Speaking at an event at Cambridge University last November, the former Home Office permanent secretary Dame Helen Ghosh denounced the “Old Etonian clique” around David Cameron. “If you look at the current government,” she said, “Cameron, it is true, it is well known, has a clique, a network of friends – the friends he made at school, friends he made at university. That kind of clique network was reinforced in Cameron’s case by the people who worked for him in opposition, the people who supported him in his leadership bid.”

Women feel excluded from Cameron’s club, she said. “Women don’t network. It is actually quite difficult for a woman to get in as part of an Old Etonian clique.”

Her comments resonated and partly explain why the Tories can seem so off-putting to women and why they continue to struggle to connect with much of the electorate even as a populist party of the right, Ukip, wins support. Cameron and his trusted inner circle do not look and sound like most of the rest of Britain, which may have contributed to the Tories’ failure to win a majority at the last general election in the most propitious circumstances. They know nothing of what it is like to have to postpone a family holiday because of hardship. They know nothing of life inside our state schools, never having been to one. No one seriously believes them when they repeat the mantra “We’re all in this together”, and this merely increases people’s alienation from politicians and disengagement from the political process.

Cameron and his clique are intelligent but, says Adonis, there is a hole in their education. “What the private schools cannot give you is an education for life, because they don’t mix with the other 99 per cent of the population,” he told me. “State schools offer a better education for life and a much broader social experience, which is why we must keep strong pressure [for] raising standards. The success of the leading private schools is a continuing and constant reminder of the need for big, bold reform in the state system.”

4.
The period through which we are passing, the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, was meant to be a social-democratic moment. Three decades of free-market triumphalism were coming to an end in the ruins of the banking system and a new political and economic consensus would be forged from the centre left at a time of austerity, rising unemployment and deep inequalities. That, at least, was how Ed Miliband outlined it to me in an interview with the New Statesman in September. But it isn’t happening; instead, right-wing populism is on the rise in Britain as it is in Italy and elsewhere.

There is a growing sense of disenfranchisement. Quietism and cynicism prevail. Intergenerational social mobility has gone into reverse (Danny Dorling has all the data on page 28). Reports on educational mobility published by the Sutton Trust have found that “children’s levels of achievement are more closely linked to their parents’ background in England than in many other developed nations”. Real wages are stagnant or falling. The average age of a first-time housebuyer without family assistance is pushing 40.

Alan Krueger, a labour economist and chairman of the US Council of Economic Advisers, has studied the relationship between inequality and social mobility. The United Kingdom, like the United States, he says, is especially unequal and has especially low social mobility. “As inequality has increased, evidence suggests that year-to-year or generation-to-generation economic mobility has decreased,” he told an audience in January 2012. “Children of wealthy parents already have much more access to opportunities to succeed than children of poor families, and this is likely to be increasingly the case in the future unless we take steps to ensure that all children have access to quality education, health care, a safe environment and other opportunities that are necessary to have a fair shot at economic success.”

Krueger has devised what he calls the Great Gatsby Curve. Named after the doomed, self-made romantic dreamer in F Scott Fitz - gerald’s novel, it plots the relationship between inequality and intergenerational increases in earnings. Researchers found that not only was Britain about 50 per cent more unequal than Finland, but a 1 per cent increase in a British father’s income had twice the positive impact on his children’s expected income as the same rise for a father in Finland.

5.
Brought up by a single mother in a council house in south London, David Davis, who came second to Cameron in the 2005 contest for the Tory leadership, is the embodiment of no-nonsense, common-sense, patriotic working-class Conservatism. Last weekend, in an interview with the Telegraph, he had a direct message for his old rival the Prime Minister: “No more Etonian advisers.”

This was a reference to the recent appointments of Jo Johnson, younger brother of the more famous Boris, to lead the Downing Street Policy Unit, and of Jesse Norman, who led the Tory rebellion over House of Lords reform and whose new book about Edmund Burke is reviewed on page 40, to a position on the Downing Street policy board. Both men are Etonians. Cameron defended the choice of Johnson by saying that he had an “immense brain”, as if others available to him did not. “I appoint people because they are good enough to do the job,” he said, “and they are the right person for that job.”

The Prime Minister seems to suffer from a kind of wilful blindness: he sees only what he chooses to see, and in his looking-glass world, perhaps the best man (it is invariably a man) for any job in his inner circle at any given time is someone like him – in background, aspiration, outlook, manner and accent.

It is frequently noted but worth repeating that the Prime Minister, the Mayor of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury are all Etonians. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, went to Westminster School and the Chancellor, George Osborne, went to St Paul’s in London; but Osborne’s chief economics adviser, Rupert Harrison, is a former head boy at Eton. Cameron’s chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, is an Etonian. The Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin is an Etonian. The Chief Whip, George Young, is an Etonian. Several of the political editors who interview these politicians and report on their work are Old Etonians: James Landale (the BBC), Tom Newton Dunn (the Sun), Patrick Hennessy (the Telegraph), Roland Watson (the Times). And so it goes on. A small world indeed.

When the New Statesman asked Jesse Norman about Cameron’s so-called clique of Etonians, he said: “I absolutely think that it is highly regrettable that people should have the idea that there is a self-sustaining cadre of mates who are running the country. First of all, it’s not true – it’s certainly not true in my case. With the exception of Boris, who I knew slightly at school, I don’t know any of the other Etonians who are in senior positions in government. Not the Archbishop of Canterbury, not the Prime Minister . . . Second, I don’t think the press can have it both ways. It can either regard these people as wildly competitive with each other and fomenting secret hatreds, or it can regard them as a kind of club. But it [the press] happily oscillates between the two views.

“Third, the reason why there are Old Etonians at the top of government is [that], however rebarbative even the word is to some people, it is a school that is dedicated to a certain idea of public service, and always has been. When I was at school I ran Eton Action, which is the charity the school has, and I’ve been involved in charitable work and volunteering work all my life. And so I absolutely believe in this Burkean idea of public service. And nothing could be more rebarbative to me than the idea that people of ability should not be able to make it wherever they are. The tragedy is that we don’t have a more competitive public sphere in which these ideas and that ethos are . . . more widespread.”

Is that ethos of public service inculcated at the school? “You don’t have classes on it,” Norman said, “but it’s a natural expectation that if you have enjoyed privilege, you will discharge that privilege in action and responsibility. Of course, sometimes they don’t – it’s subject to the vagaries of any normal institution. But if you look at people from the school who are in positions of authority, they have a very strong sense of public duty.”

Adonis said something similar when I spoke to him. “Eton trains people for public life. Not a term passes but I am invited to speak at Eton’s politics society. When I was there recently I noticed that the most recent speaker to the Gladstone Society was the governor of the Bank of England. When Gladstone, who is one of my heroes, was at the school a big part of the curriculum was rhetoric – the boys were trained to speak and debate.” And, by implication, to rule.

Listening to Adonis, I was reminded of an encounter in Oxford between George Smiley and Connie Sachs in John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Connie recalls the mindset and the motivation of a generation of spies, educated at the great public schools and at Oxbridge, who, she says, were “trained to empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away.”

6.
Much has changed since 1990 when the then foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, stood against John Major for the Tory leadership and found his Eton education being turned against him. “I thought I was running for the leadership of the Conservative Party, not some demented Marxist sect,” an exasperated Hurd protested in one interview.

In the 1980s, at the high point of the That - cher years, it used to be said that there were more old Estonians than Old Etonians in some of her cabinets. Yet, after three general election defeats to New Labour, the Tories were so desperate that by 2005 they were prepared to risk going back to the future by electing an Etonian as leader, even one whose chief sidekick and confidant was a multimillionaire heir to a baronetcy, George Osborne.

Cameron the county-set charmer and shire Tory had many advantages: charm, youth, fluency, confidence, intelligence, wealth, good family and media contacts, and a desire to remake the party. He was a self-styled moderniser, wrapping himself in the robes of a trendy Notting Hill social liberalism.

Although Cameron is now widely resented by many of his backbenchers, choosing him worked in one respect: he is at least Prime Minister in a Conservative-led coalition government and, though lacking in any sense of clarity, he carries out his duties with prag - matism and purpose. But from the outside it too often looks as if he is leading a directionless party and that he does not know what he wants or stands for. He is neither a Tory writer-scholar, in the manner of Disraeli or Lord Salisbury, nor an ideological reformer, as Thatcher was. Certain ministers, such as Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith, are motivated by powerful conviction and big ideas, but not the Prime Minister. He prefers to nudge, fiddle and U-turn.

Rupert Murdoch, after meeting Cameron in 2006, said: “Look, he’s charming, he’s very bright, and he behaves as if he doesn’t believe in anything other than trying to construct what he believes will be the right public image.” That observation still seems broadly right – except that Cameron does believe in something: he may profess otherwise but his actions reveal that he believes in the perpetuation of privilege, in the old school networks. “He worked his way up from the inside, floor by floor,” the Tory MP Nicholas Boles has said of his old friend.

It all leaves Cameron vulnerable. He has none of the originality or daring of Thatcher, the grammar-school-educated grocer’s daughter from Grantham who had a convincing story to tell the electorate about personal ambition, thrift and economic reform. Her message was success through hard work, not through birth. She knew from a young age what it was like not to have much money and she aligned herself, even after she married a millionaire businessman, with the aspirational working and lower middle classes. She spoke to and for them, as Tony Blair also briefly did, and as Ukip’s Nigel Farage is attempting to do in a more direct way today.

At times it seems as if, of the present cabinet, only the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, perhaps because of his own story as the adoptive son of an Aberdonian fishmonger, understands just how corrosive is our system of educational apartheid, in which the wealthiest 7 per cent of the population buys its children special privileges while too many are condemned to educational failure.

In a speech at Brighton College in May last year, Gove bemoaned the extent of private school dominance. “More than any other developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress. In England, more than in any comparable country, those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege. For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.”

His analysis is broadly correct – and yet the government in which he serves symbolises so much of what is wrong: an education system that institutionalises class prejudice and disadvantage and creates a self-perpetuating elite. (“Why do I want to be prime minister?” Cameron is reported to have said. “Because I think I’ll be good at it.”)

7.
There is much about Eton that is misunderstood. For a start, it is an extremely large school, with 1,300 students aged between 13 and 18 –multiply those numbers over the decades and that’s an awful lot of Etonians all jostling for power and influence. There are roughly a thousand applicants for 250 places each year, and each boy sits an entrance exam at the age of 11 as well as Common Entrance at 13. A third of those boys who finish in the top 100 in the school’s exam at the age of 11 will not be offered a place because, as the headmaster, Tony Little, says: “We are not just looking for bright boys.”

He tells me that he used to teach at a former direct-grant grammar school that is now feepaying, Brentwood in Essex. “It was a rather interesting school . . . but it was very much a question of having an entrance exam and taking a ruler beneath the 120th place or whatever it was. It had a clarity and simplicity about it. But the reason I’m uncomfortable about it here is [that] we are a boarding school and the key element of how we select young people, from whatever background or whatever their experiences have been, is whether in our best judgement they will not just survive but thrive in a boarding environment. For example, some of the very bright boys we send off we think would be better off in a day school, and the other way around.

“We are not just about academic results, and boys need something else they can bring to the party. I don’t really mind what it is – playing the clarinet, football, jiu-jitsu, something that excites and enthuses the boy. From all my experience, if you have that, it translates into other areas and you create a kind of language that is positive.”

Of his own modest beginnings, Little says: “When I was offered a place at Cambridge, my father was in conversation with his older sister, who lives just outside Newcastle, and she had heard of Eton, Oxford and all these places, but only by name, so when she heard I was going to Cambridge she assumed I had messed up so badly at Eton I had to be sent to one of the others.”

He pauses, sips his tea and then continues, the sentences rolling fluently. “Sometimes when I deal with highly charged, aspirational families who want the name [of Eton] for their son, I do remember that. But the point I’m making is that many of us at the time lived two different lives depending on the background we were from, and part of growing up is learning to mediate the various situations you find yourself in. The boys who come here become quite good at that because of the many types of people they meet. One of the things that struck me very early on, as a boy in the Sixties, and this was a wholly different school back then, was the positive strength of the community. Once you are in a house, you are in. I don’t offer it as a defence, but it is a feature of the school dress we wear. I notice this for example with the boys from housing estates. When you wear it you may look odd, but you look oddly the same, and you feel completely embraced. I wear the school dress as well out of respect for the boys.”

He wants me to know just how many boys at Eton receive some kind of assistance in the form of scholarships or bursaries. At present, the families of 45 boys pay no fees at all. “We absolutely interview all the boys without the parents. We interview the whole lot. This is a huge exercise. About three days a week, most of the year, we have people coming in, because we do our assessments in bunches of 12 . . . We certainly have no information about, for example, financial circumstances. In that sense, we are genuinely needs-blind. So the people doing the assessment have no idea what the context is on that score. They will have in front of them a report from the boy’s school but they won’t have any academic data, not even their test score.”

Little insists that Eton is as eager to ensure that the son of a family doctor or country solicitor can afford to attend the school as much as the exceptionally able boy from a deprived council estate. “My benchmark is if there is a material level of difference [to] if the boy can come or not. At an average, I pitch that mark at about 60 per cent. We are actually almost at 66 per cent now. And there are about 260 boys at the school at the moment that are getting that level of support. There are about 45 boys who pay nothing at all. We actually pay 110 per cent for them because we take the view that all the fees need remising. There’s the uniform and pocket money . . .”

Little is encouraged by but also sceptical of the Gove “reforms”: he likes the Education Secretary’s fervour if not the outcomes. “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 . . . 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 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 with local state schools. The drawbridge was up. Now, 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 . . . 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 . . . when aspirations were terribly low.”

Eton is involved in setting up an academy and has developed close links with several nearby “partner” state schools. What worries Little, however, is what he considers to be the lack of coherence in the government’s education policy. “I see no joined-up plan. Nationally, I’m talking about . . . 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 . . . [But] the extraordinary thing is the degree of biparty agreement at the moment. It seems to me . . . an Andrew Adonis and a Michael Gove are more or less saying the same thing . . . If they are saying the right thing is another matter. I don’t recall that degree of connecting over the past 20 years.”

He is aware that Eton is often caricatured as a school not only for the aristocratic landed class but for the children of the Russian plutocrat, the Gulf oil autocrat, the billionaire tax avoider. “My wife has been told on good authority at a dinner party that 50 per cent of the boys at Eton are all foreign.” Little laughs. “Well, we are a British school. The 90/10 per cent figure [in favour of British pupils] has been quite steady. And the irony is, what makes us attractive to an overseas person is that we are a British, not an international school.”

He professes to be unconcerned about the growth of school chains, such as the Harris Federation of 13 academies, or the possibility that the Conservatives, if they win the next election, will legislate for the introduction of “for-profit” schools. Nor is he concerned that a Labour government would abolish the charitable status of public schools and tax them as businesses. “I used to feel – and this may sound strange for someone who works in the kind of school I do – but I used to be very exercised about the notion of ‘for-profit’ schools. We’re a not-for-profit school –we’re a charity and a foundation. There is a very strong sense of longevity and purpose. If my views have changed, it is simply on the pragmatic argument that, if it works, it works. We don’t know yet, though.”

He acknowledges that many independent schools, especially in the north of England, are struggling to survive and that others, because of falling pupil numbers, are entering the state sector as non-selective academies, something that delights Adonis. “There is a huge difference between London and the south-east and the rest of the country,” Little says. “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.”

Anthony Seldon, the Master of Wellington College in Berkshire, has grumbled publicly that middle-ranking public schools such as his are being discriminated against by Oxford and Cambridge colleges, which are rightly under pressure to admit more students from state schools, and that some of his best pupils are being rejected by admissions tutors simply because they are perceived as being privileged. Little disagrees.

“We get a good number of people into Oxford and Cambridge. Last year we had 82 out of 250. To put it rather crudely, if I wanted to do one of our candidates a disservice I would write to a British university personally and say this is a really good candidate. But in America personal endorsement from the school adds to the human picture. I often find we have to teach our students Orwellian doublethink. On the one hand they must realise that, to get into a British university, grades are all that matters, but on the other, that before they get there, and especially afterwards, it is all the other things they do that are important. We have reached a level, partly because of the need for transparency, where it is rigidly based on numbers. We live in the great age of measurements. When once men spoke of the age of Enlightenment, we now speak of the age of measurements.”

And in the age of measurements the numbers of Old Etonians in and around Downing Street and in other prominent positions in public life tell their own story about the resilience and extraordinary success of Henry VI’s school for poor scholars. Yet they also show how parentage still dictates progress in a country that purports to be a meritocracy but which, when you take into account education, land ownership, social mobility and income distribution, is really a kind of semifeudal oligarchy. Lucky indeed are Ferdinand Mount’s “new few”.