Eton College, and what we can learn from it

Apparently Eton College is going to start up a school for less wealthy pupils – but this report does come from the Daily Mail, my least favourite newspaper, so treat with caution. And yet again, I hear that somebody at a conference is telling the world how much the English state school system can learn from one of the world’s most famous schools. I couldn’t make the Learning without Frontiers conference last month – so please correct me if I don’t quite get this right – but apparently a teacher stood up and lauded the 571-year-old public school for not having put any interactive whiteboards in its classrooms and for continuing to teach in a “traditional” way. I have attended other educational conferences which featured a lot of talk about why Old Etonians are allegedly so successful, and a similar questioning of “modern” curricula and educational approaches. Doubtless it’s because of the fact that our current British Prime Minister attended the school, and because there is a strong argument that the private school system still dominates the elite in Britain: Eton remains a fascination.

It’s not something I tend to mention very much – and never at conferences – but I went to Eton. So whenever this subject comes up in a public gathering I sigh inwardly and bite my tongue. It’s all too easy to be pigeon-holed as the posh, naïve, over-privileged Old Etonian, and I never feel that there is enough time to bore everybody with the detail of why everybody’s asking the wrong questions and not getting into the complexities of what might (and might not) be learned from possibly the most famous school in the world. So I’m finally getting it off my chest.

Eton is a bizarre, sometimes wonderful and sometimes weird, often brilliant and frequently ridiculous, resolutely unique, educational institution. I loved and hated it simultaneously, for many reasons, some personal, some philosophical, and some blindingly obvious.

The quality of its education – which was so inspirational it made me want to work in education for the remainder of my life – was grounded in some very basic and obvious facts and a lot of common sense principles.

The facts were that the school was highly selective and embarrassingly well resourced with brilliant teachers and world class facilities. This makes teaching and learning very easy, relatively speaking. It’s easy to love Mediaeval history if you are taught by an inspirational Fellow of All Souls, Oxford who treats you as if you are an undergraduate, or to have a lifelong passion for ceramics if your teacher exhibits his pots to critical acclaim in London and New York. I can’t speak from experience, but it must be a lot more straightforward to teach a class of 15 motivated, “posh” 17-year-olds picked for their intelligence than a group of 30 ill-at-ease and undervalued students in a poor (in both senses) comprehensive.

Eton’s overriding principles were to focus on the individual and make him (for there were, regrettably, only “hims”) feel that once he has been helped to find what he is best at and passionate about, whatever it is, there is no reason whatsoever that he shouldn’t be the best at it in the world. Simple but effective – and the snowball effect of saying “well, look at Jonathan Porritt/ Ranulph Fiennes/ Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, he did” (and yes, all right, David Cameron) – cannot be underestimated. This wasn’t narrow academic aspiration or box-ticking, but about being pushed to do something exceptional – in whatever field was your chosen one. Learning was in itself the best thing you could do, and continue to do for the rest of your life. I still remember my “A” level English teacher explicitly telling us that the first part of the year would be about how to pass the exam – and then we would get on to the interesting bits.

So – Eton didn’t cram you with much that was out of date. It was never relentlessly focussed on force-feeding you with the speeches of Churchill or the countries of the British Empire. Intelligent questioning was always much more interesting than dull acceptance. Marx was studied, in depth if you wished (so was American blues music). Amazingly, inside the school confines class and social status was relatively unimportant (though this changed dramatically in terms of social arrangements during the holidays – I got a scholarship, so my parents were nowhere near the income bracket and/or Burke’s Peerage listings of many of my contemporaries’, and I frequently felt “unposh” in this respect). Whilst discipline was necessarily present (usually quietly so), there was no corporal punishment and never humiliation from teachers. Whilst the place was deeply traditional in many ways the tradition was often there for a purpose (although I maintain, as I did at school, that the uniform is loony and some of the team games deeply replaceable).

Perhaps most significantly the school was excellent at teaching twenty-first century skills, utterly in line with the way in which many think the curriculum should now develop. I learnt to speak and perform in public; to work in teams; to solve problems; to think creatively; and to learn how to learn, without ever knowing that I was doing so. We learnt these skills via “traditional” methods: by performing plays, in playing team games, by being academically stretched, through other extra-curricular activities, through our teachers’ passion for learning and by constant challenging of our intellects. All of these “twenty-first century” concepts were so ingrained in the everyday experience, and had been for generations, that they just seemed obvious. It illustrates how the whole concept of “traditional” is deeply suspect in this context.

Which brings me back to technology. I suspect that every classroom at Eton doesn’t have an interactive whiteboard because they haven’t been judged to be the most cost-effective use of technology. (If this is the rationale, I’m afraid I would agree.) But – and you only need read the College’s website to find this out – all students are obliged to take a laptop to school with them and can use the Ethernet connection which they will find in their room. Every single student has their own room at Eton, and every single one is connected to the internet and to the college’s own intranet.

I quote complete with its Eton jargon (“F” block is the name for the first year of the school):

Computing forms an important part of the curriculum for new boys in F block. Almost all school events are advertised via email and internal websites, and a boy will use his computer daily for work and administration.

With of the growing use of IT in the curriculum and the need to ensure effective technical support for boys throughout the school, we have defined a minimum specification for boys’ computers.

Technology is there, but it’s been quietly and quickly incorporated into the fabric of the school where it’s useful and sensible.

Eton was not perfect by any stretch when I was there. It was particularly bad at training you to deal with what happens when things irredeemably don’t work out, whether it’s your fault, other people’s, or nobody’s. It had a pretty patronising and narrow view of the world of business. It undoubtedly has some unpleasant former pupils. It is hugely unfair that only 1200-odd pupils have access to such an experience at any one time, at a cost prohibitive for nearly everybody. Nevertheless, it is of course a hugely successful institution.

So what I always want to say at conferences is the following:

  • What success there is, is not about looking backwards to nostalgic notions of how education used to be. It’s about a combination of quality teachers, immense confidence, and high aspirations combined with pupil selection and amazing resources. Tradition is either motivational window-dressing or serves a sensible purpose, and is always questioned for its alignment with the values of the school.
  • I hope that quality teachers, immense confidence, and high aspirations are transferable into every school around the world.
  • I know – regrettably – that the resourcing is not, and selection is a deeply charged issue (which I’m not going to engage with now).
  • The interesting unanswered question is the relative importance and interdependence of these factors in creating a successful school. I hope and feel that resourcing and selection are actually the least important of them. What do you think?


  1. adam salkeld says:

    Very interesting Nick. You have laid out the case for the Eton approach more cogently than anything I have seen elsewhere…bearing in mind that most of the OEs I know, your good self excepted, blame Eton for a range of their ills and failings!!

    What I would really value is the start of a discussion of practical steps to bringing the best of E to the wider world.


  2. Tom Knowles says:

    Interesting ideas. As a current Etonian, I get some stick from others who seem to think I'm a posh idiot. I have often wondered how being an OE will affect my future and this is a good article.


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