“No parents with a talented boy should feel that Eton is necessarily beyond their means.”
These ludicrous words appear on the website for Eton, the so-called “public” school for boys. Yet it is most definitely not a school that’s open to anyone, regardless of wealth.
Eton has become a target for students protesting against education cuts. It symbolises the wealth and power of the tiny few that live in luxury, while the rest of us struggle to get by.
“Kids arrived there with this extraordinary sense that they knew they were going to run the country,” says Palash Dave, a former Etonian.
No wonder. More than a third of Britain’s prime ministers attended the school—19 out of 52. They include Robert Walpole, William Pitt, William Gladstone, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and David Cameron.
Eton is one of the elite private schools that produces the Sirs, the Lords, the army generals and the judges.
It’s where the royal family sends its spawn—and despite the enormous resources and facilities they enjoy, they still rarely do very well.
Prince William managed an A, B and C in his A-levels. Harry scraped two A-levels—a B in art and a D in geography.
But the academic achievement of the boys isn’t really important—it’s their class that matters.
Palash Dave describes how speakers visit Eton to teach the boys about their immense potential power.
“You’re encouraged to pursue any dream you might have,” he says. “Eton also allows a degree of dissent and, to a certain extent, encourages it. That’s very helpful to anyone who wants a leadership role.”
The elite aren’t just instilled with arrogance, though—they are also brutalised.
Eton used to be notorious for beating students—so much so that, during the 16th century, Fridays were known as “flogging day”. Up until 1964 boys could be subjected to a public “birching”, where they were hit on their naked buttocks with a birch rod.
Beating boys at Eton was only officially phased out in the 1980s—the last recorded caning taking place in 1984.
The Duke of Wellington is reputed to have said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”
Today the culture is still tough. Boys still learn “drill, weapon-training, battle skills, signals, shooting, leadership exercises” as well as basic infantry. They even get to use live ammunition.
The army is the biggest single employer of old Etonians.
Bill Coles was what Etonians call a “fag”—a younger boy who is bullied by older ones and used as their personal servants.
Eton has banned fagging, but it remains popular with the boys because, as one put it, “You learn how to command by learning how to obey.”
“One abiding memory was the ‘boy-calls’, where one of the senior boys would bellow ‘Boooy Upppp’,” says Coles.
Every fag would drop what they were doing and race up the stairs to the library—the last one got “fagged off” to wherever the librarian thought fit to send him.
Coles says, “Almost any behaviour was permitted as the fags swarmed up the stairs. Tripping, shoving and elbowing were all viewed as acceptable—even laudable—methods of trying to waylay your panting compadres.
“This was perfect preparation for future MPs as they try to claw their way up the greasy pole of state.”
Eton prepares boys for life as ruthless, rich bastards. Nick Fraser, author of The Importance of Being Eton, explains how the school prepares people for a political career:
“Boys elect each other to positions of influence. So from a very early age, you become adept at being charming, buying votes, being smarmy.”
Britain’s public schools are yet another arena where the rich escape their taxes. Fees are exempt from VAT. And schools like Eton pay no tax as they have charitable status.
Ruling classes outside Britain know the value of schools like Eton.
The American Friends of Eton, another “charitable” institution, was set up to provide “support” for poor, struggling Eton and encourage links between the school and the US.
The Tsukanov family contributes money for between two and three scholarships for students with Russian heritage.
Another “benefactor” pays for one scholarship a year for a student from the Middle East to go to Eton.
Despite the fancy education, it seems the students aren’t so smart.
The debating society last September debated the assertion: “This House believes that we are heading for another Winter of Discontent.”
They voted to reject the claim by 25 votes. Two months later, somewhat less privileged students were smashing up Millbank tower.
Our rulers like to pretend that class is a thing of the past.
But schools like Eton, and the explosion of student protest, show this up as a lie—and reveal the stark class divide that shapes British society.