26 June 2023

On not attacking Eton


These are the 72 words that were printed on The Times letters page on Tuesday June 13, in response to Eton’s announcement of its long-term strategy.

‘Whatever wider strategy Eton adopts, the school itself will continue to educate the global elite or those who will become the global elite. Perhaps its most important mission will be to ensure that its pupils are saved from the sense of privilege, entitlement and omniscience which can produce alumni like Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Kwasi Kwarteng and Ben Elliot and thereby damage a country’s very fabric. Sadly, I failed in that purpose.’

I did so because I have spent seven years of retirement angered and saddened that men who were educated at Eton, where I taught for 17 years, have wrought, without any expression of regret or responsibility, such havoc.

Of course, I was anxious about how some of my former pupils and former colleagues might respond to this pithy contribution. After all, the first response I got, from the former head of a ‘great school’, was ‘ouch’.

However, I was more than somewhat taken aback that my 72 words should generate 900 words on CapX from Dr David James, accusing me of ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘sanctimoniousness’, of adding to the ‘toxicity’ of the debate about independent education, of ‘condemning’ the school, the teachers and the pupils. After all,

They are easy targets who can’t respond, and indulging in such an activity shames all those who do it. Social justice warriors should leave children and teachers out of their moral crusades.’

He’s even cross that those ‘self-appointed moral arbiters’, James O’Brien and Robert Harris, supported what I wrote. I wasn’t cross. I was amazed: my par for Tweet readers is in single figures and this letter has now been seen by over 2 million people.

In between these attacks, Dr James’ argument seems to be twofold: it’s not all Eton’s fault because there are other factors in the development of character and Eton has produced a lot of very good people in the last 583 years.

I don’t think I can be bothered with the strangely vitriolic attacks on my character and motivation – that’s the classical rhetorical device of recusatio – but I would like to address three things: some simple facts about what I wrote and didn’t write; the response of people to what I wrote, which tells us something important abut Eton and Etonians; and, what I really think about independent education, which I could not get into the 72 words.

First, the Gradgrind facts. My letter does not attack the school, and certainly not its teachers or its pupils or independent education. It simply suggests that this is an issue which needs to be thought about: after all, I do use the future tense. I am not suggesting that Eton is a Bad Thing or produces only Bad People, or that it is not aware of this issue, or that it is not engaged in outstanding work in accessibility and partnership: indeed, I know very well it stands head and shoulders above almost all independent schools in this respect.

Nor am I saying that secondary education is the only factor in a human being’s development: on the other hand, every independent secondary school I know argues on the front page of its website that the school will shape its pupils. Nor am I saying that Eton doesn’t produce remarkable and remarkably good people. I don’t need to go back to Gladstone to know that. After all, I taught a lot of outstanding young men who have become outstanding men. What I am saying that Eton is a place of extraordinary, probably unique privilege and that carries with it the danger, the fatal flaw of what I described in my letter.

So, secondly, how did people respond to what I wrote, after the initial ‘ouch’? The second response I got was from the Old Etonian father of two Etonian boys whom I coached at cricket. He, at least, did not seem to share Dr James’ righteous indignation. ‘A brilliant letter’. That’s all he wrote. Since that moment of relief, I have received lots and lots of communications, usually full of hilarity, from former colleagues, former pupils – and their parents. Not a single one of them has found fault with what I wrote. Perhaps it is painful to hear – ‘ouch’ – but even Etonians feel that it needs to be said and heard. Indeed, any parent considering sending his/her son to Eton must consider this danger.

So, finally, what about the real issue, not Eton, not culture wars, but education and, in particular, independent education?

Alan Bennett once said that independent education was ‘unfair’ and I agree with him, which is why I used to say so in open mornings for prospective pupils and their parents at King Edward’s School. Since that is so, perhaps I should not have spent my career in the ‘Land of the Lotus Eaters’. I do often ponder that.

However, independent education, like private health care and hospitality boxes at Old Trafford, isn’t going to go away. That said, independent schools can strive, and must strive harder, to be the least ‘unfair’ they can be. That is what I strived to do, especially at King Edward’s, a school I attended as a boy on a free place. In the last 20 years there has been much progress in that direction, in bursaries and partnership, but there remains much more to be done: there are still too many rich schools, set up as charities, who spend too little of their wealth on accessibility. Unfortunately, the big, successful independent schools, many of which now have a global clientele, have not made fairness easy by turning their schools into luxury products and charging £45,000 to a boarder and £30,000 to a humble day pupil. You may want to give a free place to a bright pupil, but is any pupil worth £250,000 of investment?

However, schools can and must do more than share their riches. They must also ensure, by the values that they espouse and declare, that their pupils are aware of their undeserved good fortune and their responsibility to make use of that good fortune, not in ‘getting and spending’, but in doing some good in the world. All I really mean is that schools have a moral, as well as an educational purpose, and they must have the courage and honesty to face the hard questions. As Rory Stewart, an Old Etonian of a very different hue from Johnson and Rees-Mogg, often says, quoting Eliot, ‘Humility is endless.’

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John Claughton taught at Eton from 1984-2001, and was Chief Master of King Edward's School, Birmingham from 2006-2016. He is the author of ‘Transforming Young Lives: Fundraising for Bursaries' (2019).

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.