I’m embarassed to say the Prime Minister and I share Eton College as an alma mater. But unlike David Cameron, I had the greater privilege of learning more than a thing or two in the state sector. If Cameron had been to a comprehensive like me, he’d know that Eton just doesn’t have what it takes to run a state school.
It’s easy to make a political argument that private schools shouldn’t be allowed to run state schools with taxpayers’ money. That’s not my beef today. My concern is much more managerial: Eton is not qualified, on a practical level.
Eton has it easy. The pupils want to learn and parents are supportive. Eton’s a selective single-sex boarding school. Most boys go on to university, many to Oxbridge. Parents pony up £30k a year and their sons know it. Eton might look old-fashioned: outsiders see tail suits and exquisite architecture. But it’s a bustling meritocracy, a hive of independent activity and pupils want to do well.
It is a remarkable place. Energetic, diligent and focussed on excellence. They learn Chinese and Arabic alongside Latin and Classics. Eton is based on the idea that everyone there must be good at something. Be that sport, study, music, drama, art or just being a bloody good bloke.
To a great extent, discipline comes from the boys themselves. Eton is not totalitarian these days and prefers carrots to sticks. Most boys want to succeed and so they work hard and play within the (none too onerous, but often absurd) rules.
I can’t say the same for my time in the state sector. I recall students who simply didn’t want to be there. Their aspirations had not been nurtured, they didn’t have broad horizons and they would not cooperate. It’s a tragedy that it is sometimes easier to let those kids find their low level. Every state school struggles with that dilemma. And Eton doesn’t have an answer to dealing with those kids. It doesn’t know they even exist.
Teachers at Eton have a standing start. The pupils want to participate. The men and women teachers, beaks, at Eton are learned and distinguished, dedicated and talented. But, and I mean this in no way uncharitably, they have a willing crowd. And I bet the remuneration isn’t too shabby either.
When I think of the many good teachers I had in the state sector, few would have had trouble teaching at Eton. And then I consider my Eton beaks. Not that many (indeed very few), would prosper in a state school. Hardly a surprise when the teacher to boy ratio at Eton is 1/9. They would have no idea what to do with a genuine under-performer in need of help, a violent troublemaker or indeed the real rough and tumble of a truly, unruly class intent on chaos. And anyway, if those beaks wanted to teach in the state sector, they would surely have chosen that path.
Most beaks aren’t trained teachers. Staff in the private sector don’t require a PGCE. So what right would an Eton beak have to tell qualified teachers what to do? I suspect most Eton staff could learn a great deal more from their state counterparts rather than vice versa.
And then there’s the money. Eton is staggeringly rich. According to their own figures, the school’s original foundation amounts to £200m and that provides 11% of Eton’s annual income (but I suspect that Eton’s total wealth is far greater than that). Full fees at Eton are £30k a year for boys without a scholarship. The school totals 1300 pupils. For a boy from a state school well pleased with £2000 from the Summer Fayre, this sounds like a lot of money.
But Eton wants more. A recent booklet from Eton says of the income from the original foundation: “this is not enough. An institution of Eton’s standing should receive between two and four times as much support from its endowment.” I take this to mean that Eton thinks it needs close to £1bn in investments to keep ticking over. And remember, this is an institution with charitable status. Eton gets generous tax breaks from that.
How would this translate to running a state school? Would Eton give any money from it own enormous wealth? I doubt it. Eton’s consideration of a school budget in the state sector would be like NASA realising it could only afford an Airfix kit.
The crux of why Eton shouldn’t be allowed to run a state school lies with my heartfelt belief that I don’t think they want to. The booklet I mentioned before was called “Keep Eton, Eton.” That is not the name of a manifesto for change. They have resisted the temptation since 1440, so why would it be on the agenda now? Self-interest. They’ll do what it takes to retain the massive financial benefits they enjoy from their charitable status.
If Eton takes a state school on, it will be because it makes sense for the mothership. It’s not for nothing that anything persists for nearly six centuries without a keen sense of self-preservation.
The clue is in the school’s motto: Floreat Etona. Let Eton Flourish. If letting Eton flourish means taking on a state school or two to keep their privileged financial benefits, they will. But the motivation will not be a benevolent desire to run the best of state schools.
I fear that Cameron wants state schools that look like Eton. But without selection, well paided staff and oodles of cash, that’s not possible. It’s also not attractive. He should concentrate on replicating the most successful state schools we have by funding them properly. But he wouldn’t understand that. He went to Eton.