These must be strange times for Eton. You spend centuries building a reputation as the school for the nation’s elite, only to see ‘elitism’ become a dirty word. Famed as the school that’s produced more prime ministers than any other, you watch the country’s current leader having ‘Old Etonian’ slung at him as an insult. And so tactically you have to do a one-eighty: instead of billing yourself as exclusive, you emphasise how inclusive you are. For seven years the BBC have been asking Eton to let them film a documentary there. Only now that the proposal concentrates on three scholarship boys have the school said yes. (The executive producer saw her chance after hearing about a pupil whose family run a Chinese takeaway in Essex.) The CBBC programme My Life: Most Famous School in the World will air in February.
The problem has existed for a while. Well over a decade ago, at Paddington station, I bumped into someone I knew, about to catch a train to Eton. ‘I’m thinking of sending my son there,’ he said. This came as no surprise: the man in question was well-paid, a traditionalist, a stout defender of England and her ancient institutions. ‘But I’m not sure I’ll do it,’ he continued (and indeed in the end he didn’t). His reply when I asked why not has stuck in my memory ever since: ‘I just wonder if it’s fair in this day and age to land a child with that label.’ Hell, I thought: if this man is thinking like that, Eton really has got its work cut out.
Talking to a couple of Old Etonians of my acquaintance for this piece, I’m struck by how complicated the issue is. Neither of them would ever apologise for their schooling, but the fact they don’t want me to use their real names shows the problem. ‘I don’t think there’s a “stigma” to Eton,’ says George, ‘but it does attach a label to you. [That word again.] Some people are better at coping with this than others.’ Like many who attended the school, he highlights the ‘first-class education and grounding in life it gave me’. You sense it’s the image rather than the substance of Eton that proves difficult: coat-tails aren’t a good look in the 21st century. David Cameron’s antics at university rather than school might have muddied things further: are people conflating Eton with the Bullingdon Club?
It’s in talking about his son’s education rather than his own that George’s ambivalence shows. ‘I prefer my children [he has a son and a daughter] to be educated in the state sector, because I see private schools as tending towards elitism. It’s better for children to learn about the community as a whole.’ Could he ever have imagined sending his son to Eton? ‘I wouldn’t want him to be a boarder, so that rules it out in any case.’
John, who like George is in his fifties, only has daughters, so the issue arises purely in theory. ‘I share George’s squeamishness about public schools generally,’ he says. ‘I also think single-sex schools — especially boarding ones — are a bit odd.’ Though even here he points out that Eton suffers from its fame. ‘Like Starbucks and McDonald’s, it’s the best known of its type so gets all the shit thrown at it, whereas arguably the principle is more important than the specific.’
Perhaps, as so often with the meejah, coverage will go in cycles. ‘Eton didn’t cope well in the Sixties and Seventies,’ says John. He cites more recent Old Etonians who are ‘human and house-trained, like Damian Lewis and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’ as evidence that the school’s image problems may be softening. Certainly the master of River Cottage is an easier sell than, say, Alan Clark. The late politician’s diaries record his response when Norman Lamont expresses amazement at members of the government voting against Margaret Thatcher in the 1990 leadership election: ‘I can see you weren’t at Eton.’
For now, though, the school itself wants the TV cameras pointing at their scholarship boys. If they can’t get an Old Etonian to send his son to Eton, it’s time to target new markets.