“Eton,” an Old Boy once told me with a smile, “is a four-letter word.” And in certain parts of polite society it’s as filthy as the worst of them. The left-leaning fringes of the British press use it as catty shorthand for unearned privilege and logrolling confidence. (But perhaps 20 prime ministers and the future King of England will do that to a place.) The alumni don’t use it at all. To them, it’s simply “School” with a capital S—which has the pleasing side effect of implying there aren’t, really, any others. (Ancient joke, Old Etonian: “Did you go to School?” Incredulous non-Etonian: “Well, of course I bloody did!” Old Etonian: “Ah—clearly not.”)
This is an inside joke about an inside joke, in case you hadn’t noticed. And the baffling use of slang at the school has a similarly alienating effect (to say nothing of the $52,000-per-year price tag). “Beak” instead of teacher; “chambers” instead of break time; “messing” instead of afternoon tea. This is Toff Towers, all right—the oofy cradle of England’s Establishment smoothies and chinless rulers. The old cliché is that Eton gives its boys an “effortless superiority.” Naturally, current P.M. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson went here—and he won’t even have had the silliest name in his dormitory.
And yet, despite its elitist reputation, Eton College has just earned full marks in the inclusivity stakes.
In the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic, almost every school across the country has been forced to shut its doors. And the pressure has now fallen on working parents to somehow educate their children while also doing their own jobs—a situation that has hit key workers, doctors, and nurses the hardest. Eton, however, has stayed open. And though its regular students departed just over a fortnight ago, the school has now decided to throw wide its arms to some of the most vulnerable pupils in the local area, with a particular focus on the children of National Health Service (N.H.S.) key workers.
Gone are the tailcoats, pinstriped trousers, and starched collars. Instead, there’s a rounded program that includes drama, art, chess, and film studies for local children aged 5 to 13. (The Wall Game, however—a bizarre Eton sport that combines the violence of Rugby with the dullness of cricket—is off for now. “Too much close contact,” apparently.) The school’s canteens and kitchens, once thronging with the chorus of 1,300 hungry poshos, will now feed those usually on government-aided free school meals. The historic boarding houses, meanwhile, are being used to provide beds for key workers who need to isolate from their families. The children will also have access to the school’s state-of-the-art sporting facilities, including the swimming pool and tournament-grade tennis courts.
Eton is picking up the tab via its own coffers and through the donations, according to a school statement, of “(very) many” parents. (This comes just after the school decided, this week, to cut its fees for its summer term by a third in the face of canceled exams and disgruntled parents. The Times of London reported that one parent wrote: “You can have remote learning but surely you can’t have remote beds that you charge for as well.”)
The canteens and kitchens, once thronging with 1,300 poshos, will now feed those usually on government-aided meals.
The news hardly surprises any of the Old Boys I speak to. “In every aspect of school life, Eton strives to fulfill Henry VI’s original focus as a charitable endeavor,” one alumnus tells me. Another simply says, “Good thing, this.”
The school has also opened its futuristic EtonX self-study portal to every state secondary school in the U.K., free of charge—yet more evidence of the egalitarian thrust of the place in recent years. “A sizable percentage of boys are on (sometimes 100 percent) scholarships,” one alumnus tells me. It has partnerships with local state schools, “and the boys organize charity events nonstop throughout the year.” In 2019, the school announced the Orwell Award (named after George Orwell, a former student), which gives financial aid to boys from poor families or who are in government care programs. Pupils, teachers, and parents are rightly proud of this aspect of Eton life. (Though I do remember one father’s lament that the school was cruelly skimming off the “clotted cream” in favor of disadvantaged pupils—doing away with the “rich and the thick,” of which his son was certainly one.)
“We feel strongly that it is important for Eton to help in this way at a time of national need,” the school’s headmaster, Simon Henderson, said. This latest move ought to be taken as an uncynical act of charity. But it will certainly bolster Eton’s case in the changing cultural climate of the U.K., where private schools and their tax-efficient charity status are under threat from both sides of the political divide. (One protest group, Labour Against Private Schools, angrily tweets the hashtag #AbolishEton.)
“Aside from the obvious advantages of enthusing pupils who would otherwise be distracting N.H.S. parents trying to save the country, it’s a great opportunity to get feedback from a wide swathe of people from different backgrounds,” one Old Boy tells me. “People like to kick Eton because it’s easy, and it doesn’t kick back,” another alumnus concludes. “It’s the old bogeyman—but the place is doing its bit to help when others simply can’t or won’t.” Charity, it seems, begins at School. “I hope the haters take note.”
Joseph Bullmore is a writer based in London