Tristram Hunt: Eton headmaster Tony Little's guide takes on the Tory vision of schooling

We pile ever greater pressure upon individual schools, when in fact they only truly succeed as part of a broader network of support, learning and mentoring.

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An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education
Tony Little
Bloomsbury, 288pp, £16.99

This is an interesting book with an exec­rable title. Coming from the retiring headmaster of Eton College, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education sounds self-regarding and smug. In fact, this is a work of reflection, humility and insight. Pitched as a commentary for those interested in their children’s schooling, the book reads both as pathfinder for helicopter parents and a heartfelt contribution to England’s depressingly binary debate on education.

At the core of Tony Little’s educational philosophy is a commitment to the power of personal relationships. His ambition is to “loosen the grip of measurement-driven schooling” and, instead, “assert the demonstrable benefit of a school culture that celebrates academic excellence and the acquisition of skills, but which is firmly grounded in, and shaped by, personal relationships”.

This is, as he sees it, the secret to Eton. Beyond the school’s obvious advantages – “time, resources and tradition” (as well as a wholly selective intake supported by relentless parental ambition) – respectful peer relationships and meaningful student-teacher interactions in and outside of class are the key. The great York comprehensive head teacher John Tomsett recently published a beautiful account of teaching that celebrated “love over fear”; Anthony Little goes a step further, with “joy and love” at the crux of his approach. This Etonian vision of intense personal development frequently feels like something Michael Gove’s dreaded “Blob” would be happy to sign up to.

Curiously, it means talking down the impact of schooling. For Little, there are two “fundamental truths” to school life – that young people learn at least as much outside the classroom as in it; and that young people learn more from each other than they do from adults. We pile ever greater pressure upon individual schools, when in fact they only truly succeed as part of a broader network of support, learning and mentoring.

This holds equally true in low-income communities where early years education and extra-curricular activity are just as essential as schooling for tackling inequality. A successful combination of children’s centres, schools, mental-health provision and parenting support will do just as much as an executive super-head. So, it is a shame that David Cameron, who so benefited from this approach at Eton, is now stripping away ­exactly these provisions from those who need them most.

Thankfully, Little is not afraid to take on the Tory vision of schooling. Just as the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, introduces yet another wave of unnecessary English and maths tests, Little takes aim at the “assessment and exams” straitjacket. Teenagers in England face more public examinations than their counterparts anywhere else in western Europe – and “the scope for creative inspiration and divergent thinking is now extremely limited”. He concludes that current schooling policy has done nothing less than “impoverish our own children”.

What is even more frustrating is that the coming digital economy – as transformational in its impact as the first and second industrial revolutions – demands almost exactly the opposite approach. The age of the smartphone has killed C P Snow’s “two cultures” paradigm: we need an education system that blends art and science, helps students navigate the information era, and allies art to engineering. We need more creativity, not less. And with many Oscar-winning actors and top musicians coming from Eton, Little rightly challenges head teachers to put cultural life at the heart of schooling – not “culture-as-showcase”, but engagement in the arts as “an essential part of the way our imagination develops”.

He also has advice for pupils, with a challenging if rather conservative list of books that “every bright 16-year-old should read”. While I would endorse Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Mary Beard’s Confronting the Classics, he has some bizarre history choices. I say give those Eton boys a taste of Eric Hobsbawm. And what about Eric Blair OE?

Historically, the inculcation of character for a life administering the empire was the prime function of Eton, Harrow and Hailey­bury. And now, as Little notes, “character education has become fashionable again”. Today, policymakers want young people to emerge from school grounded and rounded, replete with aptitude and attitude. Drawing on Eton’s 600 years of developing character-cum-arrogance, Little highlights the need to trust teenagers; provide them with opportunities to take a lead; allow them to fail and learn from failure; and encourage ambition as an essential attribute. It is as good a guide as I have seen.

For the great reward of this book is Little’s unabashed affection for the confusions of teenagers. His chapter on the adolescent mind, which mixes the latest neuroscience with his 23-year experience of running boarding schools, reveals a continuing capacity to be enlightened and challenged by youthful development. There is sensible advice about drugs and sex (underage activity, pornography and homosexuality being at the forefront of Eton parents’ fears), but his argument is best caught in a lovely quotation from Mark Twain. “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much [he] had learned in seven years.”

Unsurprisingly, Little regards boarding schools, with their co-curricular activity, social capital and peer group development, as by far the best tool for marshalling the teenage mind. If he overeggs the pudding when he champions their capacity for social cohesion, there does exist a growing enthusiasm among head teachers in the state sector – often serving the most disadvantaged communities – for the cost-effectiveness and educational impact of boarding schools. Little also provides his views on teacher training and the fundamentals of headship. Yet there is an awful lot he misses out: above all, no engagement with questions raised by George and David Kynaston in this magazine as to the effect of private schools on the English education system.

So, if this brisk, well-written and warm work is not an intelligent person’s guide to education, it is an intelligent account of a lifetime spent teaching, learning and leading in the smartest echelons of the ­English education system – and its winning strength is that it doesn’t purport to be any more than that.

Tristram Hunt MP is the shadow secretary of state for education

This article appears in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double