Eton College in Berkshire is the most prestigious educational establishment in the UK, possibly in the world, and has produced more Prime Ministers than any other school. Getting in isn’t very easy. Or cheap.
It used to be something to hide, but now former pupils – most notably Boris – are reasserting Eton’s power. Old boy Sebastian Cresswell-Turner reveals what makes it worth £26,490 a year.
If you leave Windsor Castle behind and walk over the Thames, past the boat-house and down the narrow high street towards the heart of the world’s most famous school, all seems much as it always has been. Boys in tail coats and starched wing-collars still walk the streets with books under their arms. And the 500-year-old buildings are as solid as ever.
Nothing, you might think, has changed for generations. But you would be wrong. After various ups and downs, Eton College’s prestige has risen to unprecedented heights.
True, Old Etonians have always been in the public eye. The school has produced 19 prime ministers, including Wellington and Macmillan; it has thrown up geniuses such as George Orwell and Maynard Keynes, and outcasts including Lord Lucan and Guy Burgess.
But the sheer number of Old Etonians prominent in all areas of life is a new phenomenon. Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Johnny Boden, Hugh Laurie, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Zac Goldsmith, Damian Lewis, James Palumbo … the list goes on.
And last summer, a smattering of reports drew attention to the fact that no fewer than 14 Tory front-bench spokesmen were educated at Eton.
No one tells you at Eton that you are the best and yet most leave the school fortified with incredible confidence. Inside its walls, however, Eton is surprisingly egalitarian. When I was there (1974-79), few of us had any idea which of our fellow-pupils would inherit vast wealth or titles. Popularity had nothing to do with wealth and titles, and everything to do with style, character and savoir-faire.
Academic achievement was a secondary consideration. I can think of at least two men in my parents’ circle who enjoy the reputation of having been the stupidest boy in their year. Both are peers of the realm.
How, then, do you get into Eton, and what is it looking for? Although the school’s A-level results are some of the best in the country, the priority is to take a mix of boys who will make the most of what is on offer. As the admissions tutor, William Rees, points out, of the 100 candidates who do best in the reasoning test that is part of the selection process, 20-30 per cent are not offered places. “We take an enormous variety of boys,” he says.
With the fees at £26,490 per year, the school is necessarily for the sons of the very well-off. This is a matter of concern. “The number of careers that can bear the burden of school fees is far narrower than before,” says Sir Eric, “and we don’t want to cater just for the sons of City types and tycoons.”
The school is raising £50 million for bursaries, which Tony Little, the headmaster, says will enable boys “of character and ability from all walks of life” to attend. While one boy in five is on reduced fees, with discounts of up to 100 per cent, the long-term aim is to select pupils independently of their ability to pay; which perhaps brings the school full circle to its charitable beginnings in 1440, when it was founded by Henry VI to provide a free education for promising scholars.
Despite the not altogether positive media attention the school is garnering, thanks to David Cameron and Boris Johnson, having been to Eton is something of which one should be proud. In the face of the bankruptcy of everything New Labour claims to stand for, this school can point to a dizzying array of achievements.
Old Etonians should no longer be ashamed.
Bum-freezer: A waist-length monkey-jacket, formerly worn by Etonians shorter than 5ft 2in.
Rip: An unsatisfactory piece of work has a rip torn in the top, and has to be signed by one’s house master.
Scug: A person of no account.
Sock: Etonian slang for “to eat”. A sock-shop is a confectioner’s shop. Socking in the street is a hanging offence. To sock somebody is to treat him to something, probably edible.
Monarch: 10-oared rowing boat manned by members of Pop, the self-electing Eton Society.