The Porter’s Lodge at Eton, an unassuming but refined room that protects the entrance to one of the world’s most reputable academic institutions, holds a recent copy of the Week magazine amongst two chairs reserved for visitors. On its front cover is a satirical cartoon of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who marks the 19th product of Eton to hold this title, along with a snapshot of London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson – another Old Etonian who some speculate might become the 20th Prime Minister from Eton. This magazine has clearly been well-read, proving that outsiders are still captivated by the influence that Eton holds, as much as the school itself is fascinated by it.
On Eton’s official website, there is an elegantly presented brochure that promotes the school. It depicts images of the ancient school’s sun-bathed walls and pupils donning the school’s eye-catching uniforms. The brochure also boasts an extensive section on "famous Old Etonians." Reading through the list is somewhat dazzling, even for those acquainted with the narrow-mindedness of Great Britain’s upper class. The catalogue consists of a diverse range of individuals, including media moguls (Geordie Greig, Nicholas Coleridge) and outspoken activists (Perry Anderson of the New Left Review); TV personalities such as Bear Grylls and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, climate change experts (Jonathan Porritt) and skeptics (Matt Ridley), actors (Hugh Laurie, Dominic West, and Damian Lewis), as well as royal family members Prince Harry and Prince William, and many others. Peering through this long index of Eton’s prominent figures can lead one to believe that British public life consists only of Eton alumni conversing with themselves. The list doesn’t even include everybody; for example, the brochure was published before Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was appointed.
However, the power of an institution stretches beyond its graduates. Under the coalition government, the egalitarian education system established after the war has witnessed a reversal to more conventional methods: stricter uniforms, more rigid policies and regulations for students, a house system similar to the one found in private schools, and increased competitiveness and differences between educational institutions. Eton, with its approach, is now finding itself well-suited to this new philosophy. According to former headmaster Tony Little, prior to heading Eton, when he led another private school in the late 80s, local comprehensive schools "wouldn’t invite him over the threshold." However, over the past few years, he’s received phone calls from the heads of academia who would like to visit his school and collaborate, indicating that views are changing. Eton is now associated with state "partner schools" situated in Slough, as well as a free institution with seven other independent schools in Stratford, east London.
Eton also benefits from broader, ongoing trends. With fees higher than an average British household’s annual income, Eton is more than just a school: it is a "luxury brand," as former Etonian, journalist Geordie Greig, once put it. As the wealthy multiply and the desire to imitate them grows, luxury brands like Eton improve their offerings. Fellow of the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University, Simon Head, recalls his time at Eton: from 1958 to 1963, the lowest 40% of students didn’t put in any effort. However, determination towards better results is now apparent, and Eton has adapted to meet the challenges of the global economy.
Even the uniforms worn by Eton students seem more in keeping with present times. Considering the popularity of aristocratic fashion, epitomized by the success of shows like Downton Abbey, Eton’s waistcoats, tailcoats, and stripes appear less outdated. Items found in the windows of the classic outfitters that line the street leading to this quaint, prosperous town in Berkshire, where the famous school is located, could easily get picked up by hipsters from East London.
Recently, a mildly satirical Etonian video named "Eton Style," a parody of PSY’s international sensation "Gangnam Style," became a viral sensation on YouTube – it is filmed around school grounds and has already garnered over 2.6 million views. Eton’s talent for humorously mocking and advertising itself simultaneously is seemingly endless.
Eton, like many other influential centers of power in Britain, owes its influence partly to its geographical location. It was established in 1440 on the orders of Henry VI, who frequently resided nearby with his court at Windsor Castle. Today, the school highlights its proximity to London – the global financial hub located just a dozen miles east. "About one-third of our students have London addresses," explains Little, leaving room for the possibility that they also have other addresses. For the tenth of students who come from abroad (a proportion that has grown slightly since Little became head in 2002), Heathrow Airport is even closer. You can occasionally hear jets flying overhead the school’s spires and towers.
However, for much of the day, the atmosphere is eerily quiet. As you approach the campus, there are no grand signs announcing Eton’s existence; only small, hand-painted white lettering on black signs indicate that the courtyards, alleyways, and driveways branching off the High Street are private property. From the neat classrooms’ open windows (some of which date back to the late medieval, Victorian, Edwardian, and some with expensive glass-and-steel modern additions), there is little sound of the usual hustle and bustle of secondary school life. Students and teachers alike sit upright in Eton’s iconic black-and-white uniform, which is simultaneously uptight and flamboyant. The uniform was standardized in the 19th century and is required for all lessons, known as "divs" or "schools" in Eton’s elaborate private language.
When the bell signals the end of a class, the spotless pavements are suddenly swarmed by students. Some are tall and languid, some are chubby and scurrying, some are black or Asian, but most are white. Everyone carries old-fashioned ring-binder files, and no one is seen texting or making phone calls. But some boys greet each other with hugs, bursts of transatlantic up-talking, or say "like" with a long "i" in London-style. For a minute or so, they seem reasonably modern and normal. After that, everyone rushes off to the next class. "It is possible to be bored at Eton," says the school website, "but it takes a bit of effort!"
According to an ex-Eton pupil from the years 2002 to 2007, "In many ways, it is a conservative institution with lots of tiny rules." Due to Eton’s ambiguous outside status, old boys are often reluctant to declare themselves. "But Eton is probably more liberal and permissive than its reputation. There are incredible cultural facilities for art and theatre, for example. There were so many opportunities; it seemed churlish to complain about having to wear a gown in the heat of summer." Last month, the History of Art Society, one of dozens of such student-run bodies, held an extracurricular event – a talk on 20th-century modernism. The event was given by the BBC’s art editor, Will Gompertz.
Some boys, when they first arrive at the school, are so well-connected that they already have a certain swagger. Critics who focus on a single institution like Eton tend to ignore the more uncomfortable truth that Britain’s elites have broader and deeper roots. For less overwhelmingly privileged boys, however, Eton can be life-changing. "It’s just expected that you will drink from the cup of opportunity. So you become used to being able to do whatever you put your hand to. Or at the least, you learn not to seem fazed by opportunities in the wider world," says the ex-pupil.
Little himself studied at Eton from 1967 to 1972, "the first male in my family to be educated past the age of 14." His study is grandiose and high-ceilinged, with a window austerely open to the cold evening. However, he is less forbidding than you might expect, with a quiet, middle-class voice like that of a senior doctor. "My dad worked at Heathrow, doing security for British Airways," he explains. Little says one of the school’s core objectives is to admit a broader mix of students. However, the school’s fees have skyrocketed ahead of earnings and inflation in recent years, raising the question of how it can achieve this. "It’s a massive amount of money," Little acknowledges, adding that he believes in being candid with the outside world. "Sometimes I think, short of robbing a bank, what do you do?"
Little, the headmaster of Eton College, admits that the institution does not currently have the financial resources to become "needs-blind". Their investment portfolio is worth £200m, a fraction of the endowments of wealthy American universities like Harvard. Eton’s origins are tumultuous, with its founder deposed and its funding cut. Despite not being the oldest British private school, Eton has become an emblem of British tradition. For a time, Eton enjoyed a "golden age" before losing influence in the 1960s. Reformation attempts were slow-moving due to Old Etonian nostalgia, but now the school is more focused on encouraging work ethic and public presentation. Eton is not solely an elite academic school, but instead emphasizes well-rounded education. Little argues that aiming for excellence is nothing to be ashamed of, and that the success of Eton can be attributed to networking, a sense of mission, and a nonchalance for its benefits.
Upon concluding my interview with Little, I took a final glance at the magnificent School Hall, with its grand dome and architectural allure. The vacated structure was almost bare except for a lone, agile boy seated at the expansive piano in his rigid attire. With the accompaniment of a teacher with a pen and notepad, the pianist’s soulful melody reverberated through the exquisitely constructed building that was somewhat stuffy from the heat within.
Upon completion of his rendition, the tutor approached the lad and stood over him. I couldn’t decipher the specifics of their conversation, but the boy appeared uneasy, nervously touching his face, and nodding in agreement. For some individuals, that was the epitome of pragmatic education. Eton is ceaselessly striving to meet the needs of its esteemed clientele. Alongside the vast playing fields that seem to stretch endlessly are blueprints for a new quadrangle that could accommodate 40 more classrooms. Adjacent to the construction is a small, placid municipal park with debris scattered here and there and a set of goalposts that had been ravaged by rust.
As Eton School flourishes immensely over the next few years, other areas of Britain may have to adjust to the existing circumstances.