Thursday, April 16, 2009

The School that runs Britain: An old boy explains why Eton is suddenly cool

When the producers of the acclaimed TV cop show The Wire were looking for an actor to play tough, Irish-American detective Jimmy McNulty, they cast an Old Etonian, Dominic West. When Steven Spielberg, the man behind the classic World War II mini-series Band Of Brothers, was looking for a star to convey the strength, leadership and decency of Major Richard Wynters, a true-life U.S. hero, he chose an Old Etonian, Damian Lewis. And when the time came to find a man to play the grouchy, tortured but brilliant Dr Gregory House in the hit U.S. medical drama House, the role went to Hugh Laurie who is, I need hardly say, an Old Etonian.

They're everywhere these days, the products of Britain's most famous, most powerful public school. Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is one. Next year, we may well see the election of the 19th Old Etonian Prime Minister, as David Cameron follows in a line that includes Wellington, Gladstone and Macmillan. And, in due course, the nation will crown its first Etonian monarch as Prince William ascends to the throne.

For centuries, Etonians have wielded huge influence in high society. But, as the old Establishment collapsed in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, it seemed their influence was waning. The aristocracy lost their seats in the House of Lords. The Tory Party produced three successive state-educated PMs in Heath, Thatcher and Major. High finance exchanged the gentleman's club and the old school tie for international meritocracy. And for the past dozen years, the New Labour Government has been obsessed with modernity and anti-elitism.

Old Etonians should have become an irrelevance. Yet they're more powerful, more pervasive than ever. And their influence reaches into the most unlikely aspects of our lives. The country's biggest clubbing and dance-music business, Ministry Of Sound; one of our most successful fashion catalogues, Boden; the travel website; the White Cube gallery that nurtured Brit Art - all were founded by Old Etonians.

So what is the secret of the school's success? Well, one clue comes from the fact that we - for I am an OE myself - don't ever call it Eton. I was there from 1972 until 1976, and to us it has always been just 'school'. Even those of us who have decidedly mixed feelings about the place regard it as unique and, frankly, superior to anywhere else. So it's 'school' because, to Old Etonians, there is only one that counts. But it's also 'school' because you wouldn't necessarily want to say the word 'Eton' out loud. It's a name that has long carried connotations of grotesque privilege, chinless wonders and arrogant young men who deserve a good hiding.

This notion that Etonians are all idiotic twits is the first mistake the school's enemies make. In fact, Eton is a ruthlessly efficient machine for producing tough, super-confident, often arrogant young men who are geared for success and absolutely certain that they can get it.

It begins with the standard of teaching, and the level of expectation imposed on the 1,300 boys by their 135 teachers or 'beaks'. There is no nonsense at Eton about the need to make the little darlings feel good about themselves. Boys are tested weekly and examined every term. Results are public. Any drop in standards results in a summons to your housemaster.

In every sphere of the school's activities, competition is unrelenting. Outside the classroom, the opportunities are endless. If you want to act, the school has a fully equipped 400-seat theatre as good as many a provincial town, and better than most. If you want to row, it owns the 2,000m lake on which the 2012 Olympic rowing regatta will be held.

Above all, it instills the confidence that there is no aspiration so great that an Etonian cannot fulfil it.

I always wanted to be a writer. I soon discovered that James Bond was created by an Old Etonian. So was 1984 and Brave New World. I dreamed of following in the footsteps of Fleming, Orwell and Huxley. My contemporaries also had big ambitions - and most of them achieved them. Hugh Laurie, Conde Nast managing director Nicholas Coleridge, the writer and satirist Craig Brown, former Telegraph editor Charles Moore are but a few.

Eton is a very big, tough, demanding place. You have to learn to stand on your own two feet and hold your own in any circumstances. Try being 13 years old and walking through Windsor, the nearest town, wearing a tailcoat and stiff collar, while all the locals stare at you and the tourists frantically take photographs. After that, any other form of public appearance is a doddle. But why are those qualities coming to the fore again?

Well, for a start, 40 years of Labour's anti-grammar school bigotry have drastically reduced the competition. Fifty years ago, bright, working-class children could get something close to an Eton education for free. Now they're all, unforgivably, lost to bog-standard mediocrity and the field is that much clearer.

Plus, Etonians are adaptable. Look at all those actors hiding behind American accents on Hollywood TV shows. Look at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall playing the posh peasant down at River Cottage.

In my day, OEs were more stereotypical Hooray Henrys, much more likely to wear lurid cords and striped shirts, and speak with braying accents. Now they're much better camouflaged. The massive PR boost given by Charles and Diana's decision to send their sons to Eton also helped. So, too, did the prosperity, however bogus, of the past decade.

When people feel well-off, they are much less inclined to resent the wealth of others. But, above all, I think, Etonians owe a massive debt of gratitude to Tony Blair. His underlings may have been rabid egalitarians, but Blair was patently public school. Whatever one may think of his politics, Blair made it OK to be pleasantly posh; he was smart but not off-putting. That kind of easy-going, relaxed charm, however insincere, is right up an Old Etonian's street.

Now that times are hard, and Blair has been replaced by the dour, bitterly class-conscious Brown, you might think Old Etonians will have a tougher time again. But we still have the Cameron card to play. And even if Dave makes an utter hash at No.10, it won't make much difference in the long run. Old Etonians are like cockroaches. They will survive.


Revolving door' for British pupils who misbehave

The number of pupils suspended more than ten times a year has almost tripled in the past four years. Figures indicate that there is now a "revolving door" for the worst behaved, who bounce in and out of school instead of being expelled.

Last year at least 867 pupils were suspended more than ten times each, compared with 310 in 2003-04. The figures, obtained by the Tories under the Freedom of Information Act, from 125 out of 152 councils asked, suggest that up to 1,000 pupils were suspended more than ten times last year.

Ministers' attempts to lower the number of permanent exclusions have forced heads to keep pupils who would have been expelled. Between 1997 and 2007 expulsions fell from 12,300 to 8,600, but this decrease has been matched by an increase in the proportion being suspended numerous times.

Nick Gibb, the Shadow Schools Minister, said: "Teachers want these pupils out of their classroom so other children can learn. Suspending a child over and over again does them no good at all."

Sir Alan Steer will today publish a report calling for traditional methods of discipline such as detentions and suspensions and for more use of parenting contracts for mothers and fathers failing to keep children in line.


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