Eton Headmaster Tony Little: ‘I Don’t Feel Defensive About What We Do’
For a first-time visitor to Eton, the most notable aspect may not be the grand chapel built for adolescent students or the countless playing fields that cover acres. Rather, it is the sense of intense masculinity that dominates the school and the surrounding village. As you walk down the narrow lanes, it feels like an architecturally impressive village with an almost complete absence of women. The headmaster’s secretary is one of the few women around, and she commands respect amid the sea of male students in sportswear. The headmaster, Tony Little, exudes authority and urbanity, which stems from his over 20 years of experience as a boarding school headmaster and his time as a former Eton student. He places great importance on self-belief as a quality that Eton should instill in its students, more than centralized qualifications. He is openly critical of the current format of GCSEs and was not convinced by the English Baccalaureate Certificate. He believes that English, maths, and arguably science are the core subjects, but beyond those, it should not be necessary to insist on other subjects. While he acknowledges that certain politicians have shown a "commitment" to education, he is not entirely supportive of their views. Eton has played a significant role in sponsoring state schools, such as Holyport, which will open nearby in 2014. Eton’s status as a school for the elite has almost become an adjective, with the term "Old Etonian" used to describe a particular type of person and attitude. Little recognizes the power and influence he holds in his position as headmaster at Eton.
Recently, he participated in a summit organized by the all-party group on social mobility, discussing resilience and character. The research indicates that individuals from less fortunate backgrounds having a higher likelihood of failing to recognize that one setback will not have a significant impact on their life outcomes in comparison to their peers from more affluent backgrounds. He believes character can be taught and was asked to provide a counteractive solution. Little suggested that "young people learn more from each other than they do from adults … [and] more outside a classroom than they do inside it … A skilled educator and an excellent school foster positive conditions that allow for a virtuous circle of these two things to grow."
Eton College, for example, has three days a week without lessons after lunchtime. This time is allocated to sports, drama, and music. Additionally, each student has a personal tutor. However, this is only feasible for boarding schools with significant resources. Little suggests that despite the difference between state and independent schools, one way to do this is to provide opportunities for leadership and challenge students to develop their character. He prefers to see students struggle and learn from their mistakes within a supportive school environment than outside school.
When asked if he advises Gove, Little confirms that they met years ago but has not had contact since Gove has become Secretary of State. Although the government seems to idealize the private-school ethos, it receives criticism for its exclusivity and contribution to social division. Some headteachers of these schools have criticized the increasing hostility in society towards private education. However, Little recognizes his school’s privilege and does not subscribe to any feeling of defensiveness. Despite this, he acknowledges that money from Eton’s endowment helps to provide scholarships for students, an impressive library, and even a Gutenberg Bible.
It is not entirely false, but one’s experience plays a significant role in understanding what it feels like to live in poverty or have limited opportunities. Some cabinet members may not have had such experiences, making it difficult to empathize with those who have. For instance, the headmaster of Eton, who came from a family with no educational background, acknowledges that his experience has given him a unique perspective on the challenges that families face when it comes to higher education. He is the first person in his family to pursue higher education and understands the nervousness people feel.
The school offers assisted places to 260 students, with 50 of them not paying any fees at all. Little’s afternoons are spent interviewing state-school boys to find a place in the sixth form. However, the school balances this by admitting a quarter of students from the families of former students.
Regarding the education system as a whole, the headmaster states that he would not structure it the way it is now. He believes that a democratically elected school board system would work better, similar to what British Columbia has in Canada. However, he acknowledges that the UK has some exemplary schools but needs to integrate them to benefit the majority.
The Eton headmaster has a guide on building character in teenagers. Encouraging them to aim high, celebrating their individual achievements, allowing them to fail and learn from their experience, giving them genuine responsibility to take the lead, and showing them understanding are some of the ways to achieve this.