Good evening from Oxford
I had the great pleasure of visiting Eton College last week. Yes, the Eton College - chief nurse to England's statesmen; alma mater to no fewer than 19 prime ministers and royal family members like Prince William and Harry; scenic backdrop to many great films such as Chariots of Fire and The Madness of King George.
I had always been curious about this most famous of schools. After all, it enjoys a nigh-mythical status among elite schools around the world.
I wanted to find out what the fuss was all about.
Slough Road - the road to Eton College
Needless to say, Eton in the age of Brexit, has become a rather controversial place. It has always been accused of being partially responsible for raising an elite that is out of touch with normal people. Arguablly this is even more true now: both David Cameron, former prime minister and responsible for the Brexit referndum, and Boris Johnson, current foreign minister and brexiteer-in-chief are Old Etonians.
Let's just say that mentioning either gentleman at Eton won't win you brownie points at the moment. I certainly did not!
The stunning Eton College Chapel
I vowed to visit the school with an open mind. Ultimately I was rewarded for this. I came away from my visit as positively impressed by the smart, down-to-earth, progressive teachers I met and the school's general openness to change.
My guide for the visit was the very likeable Head of History Dror Yuravlivker. Dror showed me the campus, Eton's oldest classroom and the engravings in wood of all the Old Etonians.
Eton's oldest classroom - original school benches from the 15th century!
Top of the Pops all around!
As one would expect, Eton College has a dazzling array of state-of-the art academic-, sports- and creative activities for the boys on offer. The academic results are enviable with 79% of boys getting A/A at A-level and a whopping 95% A/A at GCSE in 2016.
Sports are an essential part here with competitive teams in football, cricket, rugby, rowing...you name it, Eton offers it.
I was especially impressed though by the arts and drama facilities. The arts department is clean and spacious and overlooks the Eton playing fields. I saw a lot of boys deeply immersed in their art, disappearing behind large canvasses. The drama department was alive with a rehearsal of a Tom Stoppard play and the five minutes I witnessed really impressed me!
Old Etonians used to get their name engraved in wood...
Eton's Classic Scolars - Among them a certain, infamous foreign minister...(hint: 1981)
Bread pudding and the future of education
After the tour Dror took me for lunch. Over chicken kiev and bread putting (delicious!) we were joined by James Stanforth, Head of Computer Science and Eton X, Eton's very own education business incubator (of sorts!).
The three of us had a fascinating discussion about how English boarding schools are not doing enough to prepare its pupils for today's world. Skills such as grit, creative confidence and problem-solving - so essential today - are only taught coincidentally and as part of the normal curriculum. We discussed how schools like Eton might intentionally design the teaching of important soft skills into the pupils' every day life at school. Both men had clearly given this topic a lot of thought and it was fascinating to hear about their first attempts!
Boys boarding - no golden taps either...
Dror also took me to one of the 25 (!) boarding houses. Boarding happens across all year groups with the older boys taking the younger ones under their wings.
The rooms were simple, relatively tidy dorms, two-bed and single rooms - standard fare, comparable with those of any other English boarding schools.
The meals all happen in the boarding houses themselves. Housemasters and other teachers join the lunches and dinners.
A typical Eton boarding house dining room - like anywhere else, really!
Eton is a hugely impressive boarding school steeped in tradition and history. Some aspects to the school are extraordinary, some perfectly ordinary, like at any other normal English boarding school. And yet, at the same time it is led by very forward-thinking, progressive people that intend to provide its boys with a holisic, challenging and fun education fit for the 21st Century.
Some Eton College facts:
- Fees: £12,910/term
- 79% A*/A in A-Levels in 2016
- 1300 boys, all full boarders
- 25 boarding houses to house them all
- 20% of the 6th Form pupils accepted into Oxford and Cambridge
- School uniform consists of black morning suit, waist coat and pinstriped trousers