The only thing I can remember about Radley College from when I was at Eton College, more than 40 years ago, is that its boys wore straw boaters which we would snatch and throw into the Thames during the annual Henley Regatta. Radley was rather good at rowing, which was an irritant, but otherwise we Etonians assumed it to be a school of no importance, populated by our social inferiors. We neither knew nor cared whether its students were cleverer than we were. I was therefore less shocked to read last week that Radley has overtaken Eton academically than that – according to the Daily Telegraph – it is now Eton’s “close social competitor”. I know nothing about how things have changed since 1958, when I left school, but I find it hard even now to believe that the Daily Telegraph is right about this. The whole point of Eton is that it confers on its students a unique social status that no other school can match.
This social status was never associated with academic achievement. Rather the contrary. Wykehamists, the students of Winchester College, have always been recognised as cleverer than Etonians, but this has generally worked against them socially. Although Winchester was founded in 1382, nearly 60 years earlier than Eton, its passion for learning has made it less glamorous. By contrast with Eton, it has been thought of as a breeding ground for top civil servants rather than for prime ministers or generals. The prejudice against cleverness used to be strong within Eton itself. Its 1,100 students included 70 King’s Scholars, who were differentiated from the rest by living in their own medieval building, called College, and having to wear gowns over their morning suits. The Oppidans, as the gownless majority were called, tended to look down on the King’s Scholars because they had passed a far tougher entrance exam than we had and also because they paid much lower fees, which could imply (oh, horror) that they were poor. In my day there was a group of Etonians – such as the late Charles Douglas-Home, a former editor of the Times – who, having won scholarships, were entitled to live in College and wear gowns but chose to pay the full fees rather than suffer the humiliation of doing so.
One can hardly criticise Eton’s former headmaster Dr Eric Anderson (who once taught Tony Blair at Fettes) for driving it up to second place in the league table of independent schools, where it stood five years ago; for headmasters are duty-bound to promote academic achievement. But he may inadvertently have undermined Eton’s traditional value system. Having done so well academically under him, Eton is now in danger of being judged, like other schools, by its academic performance rather than by its success in producing future leaders or – as the Sunday Telegraph put it in a leader last weekend – building “stout character and languid style” among its alumni. Under Anderson’s successor, John Lewis, Eton has declined this year to 29th place, immediately below Radley. Perhaps Lewis is on the right track: there is something unnatural about a school for toffs that excels at A-levels.
In my time Eton could not have been judged by the results of its A-level exams, because it refused to subject its students to the indignity of taking them. After O-levels we dropped out of the state examination system and, only if we wanted to, prepared ourselves instead for the direct entrance exam for the university college of our choice. I failed the entrance exam for King’s College, Cambridge, which I considered unfair at the time, as King’s was founded, like Eton, by the “royal saint” Henry VI in the 15th century: I thought that should guarantee Etonians preferential treatment. I then took the entrance exam for Trinity Hall and got in. I cannot recall any of my contemporaries applying to any university other than Oxford or Cambridge.
Even in the 1950s, when Eton’s academic ranking was a mystery, I suspect that the teaching there was better than at most other independent schools, if only because it was richer and could pay its teachers more. Some boys worked hard, but there was no great pressure to do so. Those who did were either temperamentally so inclined or inspired by a particular master. I, although lazy, did my best at German because of an exceptional teacher in the subject, David Cornwell (the writer John le Carre). There was still beating and fagging at Eton in my day, and a host of pointless rules that had to be obeyed, but I somehow didn’t feel even then that I was being groomed for leadership of any kind. In fact what I liked best about Eton was its seemingly greater tolerance of wetness than other, less self-confident public schools. My main extracurricular interest was music, which was regarded as wet, but there were enough other boys with the same enthusiasm to form a sizeable minority within the school who could pursue it with impunity.
I have returned to Eton only once since I left – during Anderson’s reign – and it seemed to me a much better place. While its quainter traditions had been retained, beating and fagging had been abolished, and central heating had been installed in the boys’ house. In its facilities, such as its new, state-of-the-art theatre, it seemed more like a rich American establishment than a traditionally spartan English public school. Since Eton isn’t supposed to produce leaders any more, its mission isn’t as clear as it was once. Maybe it still has a role in generating good manners and self-confidence. But it would seem rather a waste of 560 years of tradition that its merits should be judged only by whether or not it beats Radley in its A-level results.