David Gribble

There are two extremes in our supposedly egalitarian society – on the one hand the super-rich, and on the other the rough sleepers and the sink housing estates. Efforts are made to improve the lot of the one extreme, but apart from occasional scandals about fat cats the other is largely ignored.

Lib Ed has recently had its attention drawn to the top end of the scale. The 2003 Old Etonian Association Review unselfconsciously advertises the school as a centre of almost unbelievable privilege.

The Tutor for Admissions, delighted to boast that the new intake for 2004 will come from 96 different schools, writes:

This great range and diversity of 'feeder' schools reflects the spirit of our admissions process, which is to seek the best possible range of boys who will benefit from the excellence of opportunity we offer across an unparalleled variety of expertly-led activities. We are not motivated solely by academic considerations (if we were we wouldn't bother with interviews, Heads' reports and visits to prep schools, and would just go by the test scores), and we do not offer a place to a boy with high test scores if we believe he is not cut out for this full boarding environment. On the other hand, a positive and committed "natural boarder" with a lot to offer and a lot to gain will get in if he can cope academically. By definition some boys have to be at or near the bottom of our academic order, and the key question in our minds at the borderline selection stage is which boys have the potential for a fulfilling career here (and will end up at a decent university) even if they're not academic stars.

Boys only. From prep-schools only. With the potential to end up 'at a decent university.' And, though it isn't mentioned in the article, with parents who can afford a £1000 entrance fee followed by fees of £20,951 per annum, plus up to £1,500 in extras.

And for that money the boys, unsurprisingly, get 'excellence of opportunity . . . across an unparalleled variety of expertly-led activities.' And unsurprisingly, as we learnt elsewhere in the review, 'half of those taking their A2 examinations came away with a full hand of A grades, 92% of the GCSE grades in both D and E years were A or A*.'

For the sportsmen there are, among other facilities, twenty-three cricket pitches, a polo ground, a golf course, a full-size swimming-pool and a two-kilometre rowing lake which cost £17,000,000 to build. (The rowing lake is also available for hire and is a feature of the London Olympics bid.)

All this costs money to maintain. The Chairman of the OEA reassuringly quotes a note from the Bursar.

You should pay no attention to reports that 'Eton's gamble loses £4M.' In 2002 Eton's investments fell by about a tenth, while the market fell by a quarter. There was a change of investment managers in 2002. The loss included (it is true) a loss from some futures positions taken out by the specialist transition manager as a proxy for Eton's investments while they were off the market. This process is a standard part of an investment transition (not a gamble). The loss was the same as if there had been no move between managers. The losses for the whole of 2002 were recouped in 2003.

And on top of the unspecified income from this huge portfolio there are numerous gifts and legacies. The review lists twenty of the most significant, of unspecified value, but sometimes referred to as 'substantial' or 'considerable.' Gifts in kind, such as 200 letters from Robert Browning and a Rowlandson watercolour are also more than most schools could expect, though 'a new flag for the Eleven', unless it has some obscure heraldic meaning, seems more ordinary.

The review contains articles on the school beagles, the Combined Cadet Force and twenty different sports. The report on the school music mentions that the school is represented in the National Youth Orchestra by the principal trombone, the principal cello and the second horn. The school production of Verdi's requiem used a professional orchestra, and had 'the higher registers augmented by the girls of of Wycombe Abbey  School. 'The report on drama starts, '23 productions were staged in 2003. Of these, four were written at Eton by current boys and masters.' There is also a page about Social Services, describing how each week 183 boys volunteered for social work, visiting the elderly, acting as mentors in a local secondary school, teaching PE in primary schools and helping in charity shops as well as talking with homeless people and giving them 'small food parcels'.

There are 1,290 boys in the school, of whom a few receive bursaries, but most are bringing in the full £20,951 a year, with extras, so the total must be something approaching twenty-five million pounds. And Eton is not the only expensive public school. In 2002 the Headmasters' Conference, which is a kind of in-group of the schools which consider themselves to be the best, had 242 members. If we assume an average school size of 500, that means there are parents around who can jointly afford something approaching two hundred and fifty million pounds a year for their children's education.

Eton appears to be one of the best of these schools, and it is certainly one of the richest.

So what is the result of all this wealth and excellence? What glorious careers have these carefully selected and lavishly nurtured young men enjoyed? In a recent survey of the careers of Old Etonians, the second-largest group was those in the world of finance. The largest group consisted of men in the armed forces.



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