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Eton style

10 November 2012

Tony Little, the headmaster of Eton College, has given an interview (£) to the Times’ Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester. It’s a curiosity. On the one hand, Little is extraordinary: a local boy who won a bursary to Eton in the ‘60s. On the other hand, he is emblematic of how the headmasters of the ‘great public schools’ have become representatives of their schools rather than hands-on managers.

The interview reads like a sales prospectus for a philosophy of education. Little talks about the value of encouraging each boy’s talent to the full. Eton teaches 9 modern languages and coaches 30 sports. There is time in the school day for drama, music , art and debate. Teachers are involved in the pastoral care of pupils long after the classrooms are plunged into darkness; it’s part of their generous and comfortable deal.

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Can the state sector learn from Eton’s example? Little gave a non-committal answer to that question, which suggests that any lesson is going to be limited by the prohibitive cost of an Eton education (£30,000 a year before any of the optional extras). But he did say that teachers in both the private and public sectors must be given more freedom to educate and nurture, rather than teach a centrally-ordained syllabus that is examined according to very narrow criteria.

Little went on to dismiss Michael Gove’s proposed baccalaureate, describing it as ‘neither fish nor foul’ which says ‘history is important but music isn’t.’ In this sense, Little voices a frequent criticism of Gove’s far-reaching education reforms: Gove has given institutions tremendous freedoms over the own affairs, but is strengthening central control over the classroom. The counter argument is that the education system is being carefully refashioned to serve the interests of children and parents before those of the teaching unions and other organisations, and Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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  • Austin Barry

    ‘ neither fish nor foul (sic)’?

    Blimey, unless it’s Blackburn’s solecism I’d hate to think that the illiterate Little was trousering my thirty thousand quid a year.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Too right. And Blackburn doesn’t know what ‘in this sense’ means either.

  • 2trueblue

    “History is important, but music isen’t”…. strange statement for anyone in education to make. To improve our educational system is must be run for the benefit of the those who use it, and pay for it. The real problem is that because a service is free at the point of delivery, education, the NHS,, it is not really run for us, who have in fact paid for it, but for those who work in the service. The emphasis always seems to be about the needs of those involved in providing the service rather than those receiving it. In schools parents have to participate in the process and keep in touch with what is going on in the school.

    We have 6 grandchildren at school and they appear to be doing well and are happy. They are in a semi-rural area and the schools seem to be doing very well.

    • Glurk

      Having educated all three of my children at rural schools, more by luck than judgement, I’m amazed they aren’t oversubscribed by people in cities whose catchment areas in cities are necessarily more defined but the schools themselves are larger.They have a less easily focussed community, if only because in rural areas, parents tend to either know or know of each other. Kids in a Primary school of 20 with 2 classes, the old ‘uns and the young ‘uns have a relationship with other children, teachers and parents that exists inside and outside school and the school stands or falls by its effectiveness, well known to all who are usually not slow to make their feelings known. The same with secondary schools of 300 aged from 11 to 16/18, depending on the school. Teachers, usually as part of the community, have a relationship with their children and parents that extends far more than more crowded and possibly anonymous schools.

      The real bonus is that kids will usually follow their peers and siblings through the system ,building future community and adding a great support at school changing time. Some have to travel quite long distances to get to school and later to college, but this is accepted as its how it is in rural areas. Possibly not so in cities and suburbs but frequently even a smallish urban or suburb the community is too large to be properly cohesive, even if the school is within walking distance ,.

      Of course they arent perfect. Rural schools have drawbacks like any other school but the effect of a smaller community frequently creates a balance between problem and solution not always available to larger conurbations. Ive always regretted the move to massive schools where in so many instances teachers become little more than childminders for the course of the legal time kids must be sent to school. How can you fail to alienate kids where school is so large that each individual become pretty much an anonymous unit, independent or state supported.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Good post. I agree wholeheartedly. My experience of rural primary schools is the same as yours. The stupidest people are no longer peasants (there aren’t any peasants) but the inhabitants of inner cities.

        • Glurk

          I dont think that was quite the point of my post. Stupidity has nothing to do with it but expectation, opportunity and community involvement means everything when it comes to a supportive and functioning education. Spread that too thin and the problems start bursting out faster than they can be stuffed back in.


    As a professional musician for 25 years with a music degree, I can confirm that a music degree is the softest of soft options and in no way comparable with degrees in science. More on a par with media studies. But that doesn’t mean that Gove isn’t conscious of the value of music – doesn’t he want every child to have the chance of learning an instrument? And he knows that British classical music is a huge success story with our musicians being a commanding presence worldwide.
    Anyone wishing to pursue a career in music would be well-advised to read Literature, History, Philosophy, Physics, and if you really want to know about music, spend your spare hours on You Tube and listen to the long-dead practitioners of your art who will guide you to excellence.

    • Daniel Maris

      Mention of You Tube, is a reminder of just how much access one can now have to fine tuition thanks to the internet.

      I think we haven’t yet worked out how to harness these new technologies to advancing education.

      I would like to see an education voucher scheme which would involve the independent sector as well. We might then see opportunities for co-operation e.g. video conference call teaching for minority subjects; sharing of sports facilities etc. I wouldn’t expect Eton to be part of that particularly. Eton is really an irrelevance to education.

      Gove is not as radical as he would like to appeal. The free schools are in many ways just a way of providing state-subsidised private schools – great for the hard-pressed middle classes and religious maniacs of various stripes.

      • 2trueblue

        Thatcher did try to bring in a voucher system which could be used at a a school of your choice. It was trialled but not taken further. It is not something that the left have ever promised, but for their won children they simply move to an area with good schools, often at our expense.

      • Fergus Pickering

        I think educating the working class these days is a waste of effort. It is no longer the working class of fifty years ago. Stick to giving the lower and of the middle class a better shake.

    • Thomas Paine

      Depends where you went. I doubt anyone who studied music at Glasgow, Edinburgh, St Andrews, Durham, Canterbury, Goldsmiths would say it was an easy option. Years of serious counterpoint and harmony, tough history papers, orchestration, composition, high standards of performing musicianship and a jolly stiff audition process to keep out the also-rans. I don’t doubt that some BAs in music are not worth their weight in bog roll but a B.Mus from a good institution is as much a gold standard as you’ll get anywhere.

    • Fergus Pickering

      How do you know a degree in Science is very taxing? You haven’t done one. It appears that many scientists are illiterate in English, and I can’t say the ones I knew at university filled me with shock and awe. Isn’t that fool who wrote ‘The God Delusion’, I forget his moniker, a scientist? Dawkins! That’s the fellow. What did the new Arch of Cambry do? Strikes me as a long-headed cove.

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