Boris Johnson is the 20th prime minister to come out of Eton College. The school represents a system in which the elite stay among themselves and fail to see the problems of others. And it is becoming a serious problem for the country.
At the very front of the Eton Museum, there is a wall of fame set up on a mint-green background. Princes William and Harry are there, as is James Bond author Ian Fleming, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the actor Damian Lewis and Hugh “Dr. House” Laurie. There are also decorated soldiers, Olympics athletes, journalists and adventurers. And, of course, politicians. David Cameron is there, as is Jacob Rees-Mogg and, on the top-right, a young, blonde man grinning broadly into the camera: Boris Johnson, who is described there as the former mayor of London and ex-foreign minister.
Eton College, it seems, hasn’t completely caught up with the times.
The school is extremely proud of its “Old Etonians.” The exhibit proudly notes that graduates of the school “can be found involved in almost every national movement, in every event and on every side.”
That, some would say, is the problem.
In the United Kingdom, a lot of people are once again talking and writing about Eton. They aren’t, of course, talking about the Berkshire village by that name, which is essentially just a long street decorated with Union Jacks located just west of London, around the corner from Windsor Castle.
They mean the complex that lies at the end of this road: a huge, castle-like clutch of red brick buildings largely closed off to the public. It is almost two square kilometers in size and sits between the Thames and the Jubilee Rivers. Eton College, the empire’s almost mythical elite academy, the place where the wealthy classes send their children, one of the most famous and oldest boarding schools in the world. It is also the place that has “produced,” as Eton itself says, 20 prime ministers.
The most recent Old Etonian to take the helm is Boris Johnson. He inherited his most important — perhaps only — task from another Old Etonian, David Cameron, who unnecessarily paved the way for the Brexit referendum in 2016. If you include former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was educated in an elite Scottish school called Fettes College, the UK’s fate for over the past 20 years has largely been determined by the graduates of elite boarding schools.
Is that merely a coincidence?
Once one begins reporting on private schools and starts speaking to their former students, one quickly comes into contact with an exclusive world of archaic rules and unconscionable wealth. This world only exists in Britain. There, only success counts, no matter how it is attained. The system has brought forth an astounding number of statesmen, military heroes, Nobel laureates, gold-medal winners and Oscar recipients. But it has also helped promote, deepen and cement inequality. It is a system that “underpins almost all that is wrong with British society,” as Boris Johnson’s own sister, Rachel, has said. She is among the many who believe that the private school system should be broken up.
An Archaic System
There is nothing to indicate that her brother agrees. Boris Johnson has appointed numerous private school-educated politicians to his cabinet, with almost two-thirds of his ministers belonging to the 7 percent of the population whose worldview was formed in a private institution.
As such, his government doesn’t represent “modern Great Britain,” as Johnson has claimed, but an archaic system that teaches those who belong to it that they are destined for the kind of greatness that others cannot reach. It is a system that teaches the preservation and exercise of power, but it also one in which the shrewd and cunning, but not necessarily the best, rise to the top. In its eagerness to produce a ruling elite, the system has also done lasting damage to the psyches of many of the children who have passed through it. And many view the boys’ school of Eton College as perhaps the most representative example of this system.
It is a Friday in late July and around 25 tourists from around the world have gathered in the “Upper School.” It is a classroom — or, rather, an 18th century refectory, the walls of which are covered in names carved into the dark wood by former pupils. It has room for up to 70 students, and when they gather here, they aren’t far from power.
Looking down at them from above are busts of numerous men who once transformed England into a global power. Lord North is there, the British prime minister who fought in vain to hold onto Britain’s North American colonies, as is the former Lord High Chancellor and judge Earl Camden and the first Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon. All of them were educated here, molded for a life in power.
A dark brown door leads from the Upper School to the headmaster’s chambers. For much of the school’s existence, there were essentially only two reasons for a student to enter these chambers. Either he had violated one of Eton’s rules and had to be punished with a birch rod. Or he belonged to the elite of the elite and received the honor of extra lessons. The names of these particularly brilliant pupils are carved into the wooden walls for eternity. For the year of 1981, there is an entry for A. B. Johnson, roughly at the same height as the busts of the heroes of British history. “He was undoubtedly a very bright boy,” says the tour leader, as Chinese tourists takes pictures of the name.
There is almost nobody on whom the teenager Boris Johnson didn’t leave a lasting impression. He was known in Eton as “Yeti,” as his former schoolmate James Wood recently wrote in the London Review of Books. “The bigfoot stoop, the bumbling confidence, the skimmed-milk pallor, the berserk hair, the alarming air of imminent self-harm, which gave the impression that he had been freshly released from a protective institution: All was already in place.”
Johnson was a “King’s Scholar” and from the very beginning he was among the most academically gifted at Eton. The bulky blonde quickly made a name for himself in rugby and Eton’s own “Wall Game,” a sport largely incomprehensible to outsiders that centers around doing all you can to hold onto a ball once you have possession of it. Johnson’s path to leadership position was charted when entered the boarding school at the age of 13. In the five years that followed, the Eton system took care of the rest.
“There was always a real sense that we were kind of the elite in every way: socially, intellectually, educationally and financially,” says Adam Nicolson at his country home in Sussex. The 61-year-old is co-author of “About Eton,” a book about the institution, and the grandson of poet Vita Sackville-West. He attended the boarding school in the 1970s, just before Johnson made his appearance, and is ambivalent about his time at the school. He says Eton was akin to a small city-state, made up of students from different houses that compete with each other. Nicolson describes it as a strictly hierarchical “mimic-republic” that sees itself as a “a school for government.”
“You have to understand how to build your constituency, how to network, how to charm people so you can build your world and become significant within your world.” Charm, he emphasizes, was always the most effective means to that end, helping to free oneself from every dicey situation.
One time, when he was 15, Nicolson relates, he was found drunk by his house master. He was taken aside and told: “Listen, Adam. It doesn’t matter if you get drunk, just don’t get caught. This is Eton. The spotlight is on you.”
Fear and humiliation, Nicolson says, were important elements of the Eton system at the time, and remain so today. Poorly written papers are still torn up by teachers in front of the entire class, and at the end of each school year, everyone can see who was best in class and who was worst. The school is home to “horrible bullying,” Nicolson says. When he was a student, the less-brilliant ones were referred to as “dockers.”
The notorious practice of “fagging,” which saw older students taking younger ones as a kind of slave, no longer exists in quite the same way. But there is still a caste system that is manifested in a number of different ways, including in the uniforms that have remained largely unchanged since the end of the 19th century — a black three-piece suit that makes the streets of Eton sometimes look like the town is hosting an undertakers’ convention.
The best athletes, the best poets, the best thinkers are allowed to augment their outfits with ties or bowties, for example. And the crème de la crème have silver buttons in their vests. Boris Johnson was allowed to wear one of the latter early on in his Eton career. While other boarding schools have abandoned their uniforms, Eton has held on to the tradition.
The boarding school, says Adam Nicolson, “taught me how to learn,” but also “to be frightened of failure.” He paid a high price for those lessons, he says. “I’ve spent years trying to re-cultivate those parts of myself which the Etonian system would ignore or suppress.” Nevertheless, the author, who has written two dozen books and won numerous awards, says he would still go to Eton if he had it to do over again. He also sent his own offspring to the school.
In doing so, Nicolson finds himself in good company. For centuries, the British upper classes have seen it as self-evident that they would send their children and grandchildren to Eton or another elite private school, usually at the age of 13. A spot in such a school doesn’t just guarantee a top-quality education in luxurious surroundings — with a golf course, horse stables, a recording studio, a theater and a facility for shooting clay pigeons.
A Leadership Clique of ‘Pseudo-Adults’
It also offers its students an influential network of friends and acquaintances they can rely on for the rest of their lives — a network that dominates every relevant area of British society. Indeed, just like in feudal times, the alumni of the most important elite boarding schools — in addition to Eton, the list includes Charterhouse, Harrow, Merchant Taylors’, Rugby, St. Paul’s, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester — inherit money, status and influence.
But it comes at a price. Since 1980, private school tuition has tripled on average, with some schools passing the 40,000-pound barrier in 2017. In places like Eton, the cost of the school uniform, trips and many other extras are not included.
As such, these schools have turned their original purpose on its head. Winchester College, the first school of this kind, was founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham, the deeply pious son of a farmer. It was intended to educate 70 children from poor families, enabling them to climb out of poverty. King Henry VI had the same idea when he founded Eton College in the shadow of Windsor Castle in 1440. Because these boarding schools were the only ones open to any child in the empire, they were called “public schools.”
Their excellent reputations, though, attracted more and more rich families, who sent their children to the schools and, in return, paid fees that were initially voluntary. It didn’t take long for the schools, originally set up to emulate Wykeham’s brainchild, to succumb to the temptations of money. In response to the repeated criticism of the system, headmasters came up with the creative argument that the students were poor, and that “just their parents are rich.” While they continued to be called “public schools,” nothing could be further from the truth.
In response to growing public pressure, many of the around 2,500 “public” schools in Britain have, in recent years, increased the number of students able to attend thanks to bursaries, discounts or even full scholarships. Some institutions have even sought to mitigate their elite reputations by having their young charges perform some sort of community service outside of the school walls. But the majority of those who go to such boarding schools still come from wealthy families. In Eton, there are 73 children from “poor” families compared to 1,200 wealthy or extremely wealthy students. The latter often don’t hide their disdain for those without money.
Education Budget Shortfalls
In the 2017-2018 school year, the school took in 51 million pounds in tuition, with an additional couple million coming in for extras such as school trips and music lessons. Eton College also owns 400 buildings, most of them listed due to their historical importance, a significant endowment and securities in addition to 175,000 artworks and valuable antiques.
This list of assets makes it even more astonishing that Eton College, like most similar boarding schools, enjoys significant tax breaks and that the state doesn’t impose any tax at all on the tuition fees it takes in. This is partly because they are classified as charities due to their “cooperation” with other nearby schools, allowing them tax benefits in the billions. That cooperation, though, frequently only exists on paper. As a result, private schools continue to flourish while state-run schools often can’t even afford the basics due to recent cuts to the education budget. A march on Westminster is scheduled for September to call attention to the shortfalls.
Even Michael Gove, a former education minister who is currently charged with making preparations for a no-deal Brexit as a member of Johnson’s government, once expressed astonishment over the unfairness. In a 2017 op-ed for the Times, he wrote that state-supported private schools had facilities reminiscent of five-star hotels. Tuition at all of the schools, he wrote, was over 30,000 pounds, which is more than the annual salaries earned by most Britons. “To my continuing surprise, we still consider the education of the children of plutocrats and oligarchs to be a charitable activity.”
Gove isn’t the first to make that observation. Several efforts were made to reform the system in recent years, but all failed — more sooner than later — in part because those who profit from the status quo are grotesquely overrepresented in key government positions. Whereas just one in 15 people in Britain was educated in a private school, the educational charity Sutton Trust has found that 65 percent of all judges, 59 percent of state secretaries and 29 percent of lawmakers were educated at an elite school. And because almost half of all newspaper columnists likewise got their start in the system, criticism in the media tends to be limited. In all areas, women are severely underrepresented.
The most recent attempt to eliminate the education system’s shocking inequality was undertaken by former Prime Minister Theresa May, who attended a state-run school. Only 30 percent of her cabinet was made up of private school graduates, the lowest share in seen decades. In 2017, the Conservative Party manifesto read: “The greatest injustice in Britain today is that your life is still largely determined not by your efforts and talents, but by where you come from, who your parents are and what schools you attend. This is wrong.”
The election that followed, however, ended in disaster for May, and from that point on, she was completely consumed by an intra-party battle over Brexit. Hardly a word more was said about education reform.
As a result, 21st century Britain has seen the perpetuation of a system that has almost nothing to do with educational equity and equal opportunity. In search of higher profits, many of the elite schools have opened up branches in China, Singapore, Dubai and the United Arab Emirates, offering the children of the elite the best education possible. Meanwhile, the mantra of social mobility in Britain has remained as hollow as ever. Indeed, independent studies have found that the boundaries between the very top and the very bottom are becoming increasingly impermeable.
“A child today has less chance of breaking through the class and career barrier than their grandparents born in the 1950s,” writes Robert Verkaik in his book “Posh Boys.” “The subtle networks of the privately schooled help to create a system of self-perpetuating advantage and social immobility.” Verkaik has dubbed the situation “educational apartheid.”
It is thus hardly surprising that anger against “the elite” has intensified. This rage contributed to the result of the Brexit referendum three years ago — a decision to leave the European Union that caught David Cameron, the political classes, British business leaders, much of the media and even Brexit frontman Boris Johnson unprepared.
Nick Duffell isn’t surprised. “Elite boarding schools consistently turn out people who appear much more competent than they actually are,” says the 70-year-old psychotherapist. It is an overcast Wednesday in London and Duffell is on the way to the House of Commons to take part in a forum on the abolition of private schools. But he takes a bit of time to talk about his favorite issue over a cappuccino, an issue that has been working on for the last 25 years: “boarding school survivors.” He is one himself.
Duffell points out that the system, which takes children away from their parents for several months at a time, is largely unique to Britain. He explains that it has also left lasting damage on many of his clients. At its core, Duffell says, the system is about “getting rid of the parents, putting children in houses together, keeping them away from sexual contacts, putting them through a program of learning, sports and other things so that they have no leisure time whatsoever. And you get a recognizable product, which is very poor at emotions and has a built-in sense of entitlement.” Products of the system, he says, tend to be self-confident, eloquent and charismatic, but often lack the ability to deal with their own feelings and those of others.
A Simpsons Character Come-to-Life
British boarding school students, Duffell says, have to leave their homes and families prematurely to struggle for survival in an environment of competition and harassment. Frequently, he says, their inner child is locked away and they quickly become “pseudo adults.” That is why many of them seem so “boyish.” Essentially, he says, Britain is being run by children in adult bodies for whom politics is little more than a fascinating game. The title of one of Duffell’s books is “Wounded Leaders.”
It is a tempting hypothesis, and looking at the country’s political alpha males, one does in fact find a certain predilection for infantilism: Boris Johnson and his mussed hair; Jacob Rees-Mogg, who remains fond of taking pictures with his nanny; David Cameron, who turned tail and disappeared after his brutal Brexit defeat in 2016; and Nigel Farage, another elite school product, who seems like a Simpsons character come-to-life.
Nick Duffell was harshly criticized in parts of the British establishment for his thesis when he first presented it several years ago. These days, though, many others speak of the “boarding school syndrome.” There have been shocking reports of psychological abuse, draconian punishments and sexual misconduct. A couple of years ago, a group of psychologists, doctors and academics joined forces to call on private elite schools to at least stop accepting really young children, saying that it was damaging to their psyche and the expression of an antiquated class system. The call was heard — and then immediately disregarded.
Yet there is one thing that should be completely uncontroversial: The British boarding school system is not in a position to provide its charges with a realistic image of the conditions in which the vast majority of the population live their lives. The years in educational luxury are instead much more likely to further deepen the chasm between the self-proclaimed elite and the rest. There are, of course, counterexamples, such as the postwar British prime minister Clement Atlee, who is considered the father of the social welfare system, or the current Tory lawmaker Rory Stewart, whose modest, even-keeled manner is essentially the opposite of Boris Johnson.
For many other leading politicians, Robert Verkaik is on the money when he writes: “Pupils leave school with inflated egos, unshakeable faith in their own abilities and a craving for success. But this system for the self-selection of our leaders … may be damaging to a nation that is trying to come to terms with a more modest place in world affairs.”
Self-Confidence Above Expertise
Even some Conservatives are becoming increasingly uneasy with the fact that their party is losing its connection to reality. In 2012, following years of brutal austerity, Conservative lawmaker Nadine Dorries described Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who was also educated in a private school, as “two posh, arrogant boys … who don’t know the price of milk, … who show no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others — and that is their real crime.”
Dorries could have been referring to Johnson, who was mayor of London at the time and who was recently unable to identify the minimum wage in Britain. He instead presented a plan to lower taxes on the richest 10 percent. Even the center-right magazine Economist wrote that “Britain is governed by a self-involved clique that rewards group membership above competition and self-confidence above expertise.”
It is precisely this wealthy and extremely well-networked clique that will have to bring Brexit to fruition in the coming months. Because of the advantages they enjoy, they will likely be unafraid of a “no deal” departure from the EU, because they almost certainly will not have to pay the price for it. The members of this clique know that they will get away scot-free. They always have.
They haven’t learned any different.