Eton vs snobbery

CBBC’s new documentary gives the school the best PR it could ever wish for 

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

22 March 2014

9:00 AM

One of the stranger things about Eton is its near-total lack of class snobbery. Yes, all right, you still get the occasional away match where their supporters will chant at the opposition ‘You’ll be working for our Dads’ but that’s just badinage, not animus.

I doubt it was always thus. Probably there was a time when every Etonian was acutely aware of which of his housemates was in line for a dukedom and which a mere baronetcy. But, as far as I can tell from my own experiences as an Eton parent, those days are gone. Today Eton is quite ruthlessly meritocratic and if you’re good enough you’re good enough, regardless of whether your Dad owns a Chinese takeaway in Leigh-on-Sea or he’s a jumped-up blogger from Brum.

This fact probably came as a bit of a surprise to the BBC when it sent a crew to film three new boys over a term (or rather a ‘half’) for CBBC’s documentary strand My Life. Often — in that earnest, well-meaning BBC way — the strand focuses on children trying to overcome physical disabilities (brittle bone disease; cancer; paralysis; etc.) and perhaps that was half what it was expecting here: three scholarship kids from ordinary working-class backgrounds struggling to cope with life among the posho freaks.

If that’s what they were after, though, their stars confounded them. The series’ executive producer apparently spent seven years begging Eton’s headmaster Tony Little for permission to film at the school. But Little is a canny man and wasn’t going to accede until the moment was perfect. Enter: James, Theodore and Faramade — one Chinese, one white, one black — each of them likeable, articulate, super-bright, working class and about to do the best PR job for the school since Elizabeth Woodville whispered into her husband’s ear: ‘Please don’t raze it to the ground, honeybun. In 450 years’ time it might produce a George Orwell…’

The boys’ back stories were all deeply touching. Fara’s ambitious Mum had made up her mind when he was a baby that one way or another her boy was going to Eton; Theo’s Dad was a swimming-pool attendant and had heard about these Eton scholarships from a fellow parent while sitting bored during a long, late-night training session; James — 13 going on 40 — was a fantastically precocious jack-the-lad who already virtually ran his parents’ Chinese takeaway, and who had taken it upon himself to read up on and get into Eton because his parents, being ‘immigrants’, wouldn’t know about such things.

But how would they take to this strange new environment? Like ducks to water, actually. Yes, after they’d been fitted for their uniforms they did all look slightly awkward in their tails and pinstriped trousers. So, though, does everyone who tries on their Eton kit for the first time, it not being normal dress in any British household these days, even if you’re the grandson of the Queen.

Once they’d got over the brief initial culture shock (for example, the fact that Etonians seem constantly to be grazing — not just on breakfast, lunch and dinner, but also mid-meal snacks called ‘chambers’ and ‘messing’), they became Etonians like any other. In one scene, Fara was shown being helped with his EW (Extra Work — i.e., prep) by a friendly Russian boy. The disparity between their two families’ incomes is not small, I would imagine. But because of Eton they had become brothers under the skin.

Because it was told, often in voiceover, from the boys’ point of view, the tone throughout was delightfully fresh, honest, free of second-guessing or snarky spin. And because of this, Eton was allowed to come across as it actually is — shamelessly élitist and unapologetically traditional but yet bizarrely so relaxed and free-thinking you’d almost call it progressive.

You saw this contrast nicely set off by two vignettes of Eton life. In one, the boys were captured on Mufti Day where — for a small sum payable to charity — you’re allowed to wear your own clothes and where some boys, being Etonians, push it to the limits by dressing as bananas, superheroes or pregnant nuns. In another, Theo was shown being given a ‘tardy’ as a punishment for having been late.

The deal with tardies is that you have to get up 20 minutes earlier than usual, put on your full uniform and report to the school office to sign a tardy book. Theo turned up without his collar correctly studded — imagining, as he later confessed, that he’d be let off the hook because there was a TV camera crew present. He wasn’t. Back he was sent to his house to dress correctly.

This is what you’re taught very early on at Eton: if you’re going to do something, do it properly. It’s why one day, James, Fara and Theo will be among the new rulers of the world.

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Show comments
  • blingmun

    Old Etonians are certainly more than happy to send you over the top (see Somme for details). Still don’t see how the cloistered world of Eton/Oxford is a substitute for real world experience in business, medicine, engineering, military etc.

    • Pee Wiglet

      What a daft response!

      First, and proportionally, just as many public school teenagers went over the top in WW1 as those from other backgrounds.

      Secondly, the cloistered world of Eton (and other public schools) doesn’t purport to be a substitute for RW experience of business, medicine, engineering, military etc. The point being that they’re… doh… still at school…?!

      That chip must be awfully heavy. Ever think about dropping it?

      • blingmun

        Firstly, I said nothing about public schools. The vast majority of ex-public school boys are middle class and have about as much chance of walking into a £90k graduate job like Dave did on leaving Uni, as the guy serving fries in your local McDonalds. They are the sons and daughters of successful upwardly mobile parents. They have little in common with the sons and daughters of baronets, dukes and monarchs.

        Secondly, the aristocrats might have squandered their own blood in WW1, but that does not absolve them of their role in getting us there in the first place. It’s hard to blame Prussian expansionism entirely for the outbreak of the first world war when the inbreds and incompetents running our country had already exploited Britain’s place as workshop of the world to conquer one quarter of it. The Empire was economically against the interests of everyone in this country, apart from the aristocracy (for whom it meant governorships and colonial pomp). It bled Britain dry costing us our industrial lead and in the long-term was bound to provoke other countries to emulate our power and influence, as indeed did happen in the case of Prussia.

        Thirdly, the cloistered world of Eton/Oxford may not purport to be a substitute for real world skills and experience in theory but that is nevertheless what happens in practice. Politics is littered with such people. Increasingly they don’t even bother to pretend that they have any interest in politics, they just get a stint under their belts and then announce that they’ll stand down at the next election. An article on Conservative Home today details this squalid practice.

        Finally, re that chip you seem convinced must explain my entire world view. Whether it is real or imaginary, the substance of my argument remains. Our country is run by a clique of a few hundred thousand people and the vast majority of us would be a lot better off if we were instead governed by the most talented and energetic.

        • dapplegrey

          blingmum – are you as chippy as this in real life?

          • blingmun

            Oh shut up you silly troll.

        • balance_and_reason

          yeah most of the oxford types are in the labour party…

          • blingmun

            Couldn’t agree more. One more reason to vote UKIP.

          • balance_and_reason

            No. Whilst I agree largely with UKIP’s aims of staying in the euro trade area but leaving the venal socialist community; I do not wish the Labour party to return to power, ever. At present, with all the boundary distortions there is a real chance that the will of the people will be cheated.

    • Pootles

      I’m afraid that this is rot. I taught at Eton for five years, and during that time, Old Etonians made up, on average, 7% of Sandhurst’s yearly intake. If you walk into College (and visitors can go into the quad at certain times), you will find walls covered with bronze plaques carrying the names of hundreds of OEs who were killed in both wars. If you then walk to the rear quad, you will see the walls covered with memorials to OEs who have died in other wars. They more than do their bit. And, I might add, if you compare this part of the British elite’s contribution to UK armed forces with the almost zero contribution of their US counterparts to the US armed forces (something that wasn’t always the case), then you see a difference in attitude to patriotism.

  • TheGallowglaich

    What absolute nonesense! However, I am sure this will be a very interesting and revealing programme indeed and the PR advertising carefully controlled by Eton’s Business Development management is probably much appreciated in these hard times . After a long wait, the Leftish BBC filming supposed PR guff, with their own message agenda behind it no doubt, from that hotbed of class warfare, Eton College. And not the Bullingdon inherited wealth boyos for whom it is a given. Oh no! “Just” 3 “working class” (whatever that means now) lads whose poor deluded parents have obviously gone through a very great deal of hard work and sacrifice in order to save the money over a long period of time to pay for them to go there and dress up. Many would not do that (the sacrifice), but each to their own. I feel sure it was worth it.

    Indeed, it must have taken quite some time for the BBC Director to find these three
    multi-hued subjects and get company approval to get them on screen. Unsurprisingly, James, badly loosened screws of varying diameter and gauge rattling around all over the place, thinks this is all marvellous stuff.

    With an increasingly large proportion of children at these sorts of place in England
    being the offspring of those from “business” backgrounds of all hues,
    shapes, shades, places and sizes (no questions asked, IQ over 110, fine, just
    show us the money Mr. Kovlenko) based wholly and solely on who can pay, the
    concept of Public Schools being places where the English ruling classes are
    trained and boy-washed preparatory to running the whole imperial shooting match
    are long, long gone. These places are now purely run as rather cold pantomime business concerns now. Heads of State Govts in Nigeria almost invariably want Eton, Harrow, Westminster, that catholic one in North Yorkshire or Winchester (for some reason) for their boys and are prepared to pay top franc (double if necessary) out of Zurich to do it. One of them from a place well known to me, XXXXX State, lovely place, sent his children to…..(FILL IN SPACE). Not this guy:

    There are hundreds and hundreds of similar very dodgy people all over the globe wanting to send their kiddies to Eton and similar. Copy of Godfather 1 and 2 anyone? Great films. Gallowglaich.

    • balance_and_reason

      and your point is?

      • Chris Golightly

        Point? Point?!?!? Does there HAVE to be a point you fool? Gespringen aus!

        • balance_and_reason

          Actually, Eton’s education process is quite different from most english public schools and quite successful for those it suits….not surprised people want to pay for it…also its no more expensive than the next 20 ‘top’ public schools. You are right about the enrolment profile….think it probably is a bit more healthy than it was before. My personal experience is that kids will be kids and provided the environment is healthy and positive they flourish…son of Nigerian finance minister or minister of the church (if they can afford it) notwithstanding.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    The private school is at the root of Britain`s class structure.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Private school, public school, independent school … seems we have a contradiction of terms.

    • post_x_it

      No we don’t. That’s just the terminology in the UK, which perhaps you’re not familiar with. Nobody really says “private school” here, that’s a US term. “Independent school” is the collective term for all fee-paying schools that are independent of the state system. Among them, there is a small number of elite institutions, such as Eton, that are called “public schools”. If I remember correctly, this is because when they were first established, they offered a “public” alternative to private tutoring for the sons of the aristocracy.

  • Steven Barr

    I wouldn’t mind Old Etonians, Harrovians and similar running the country if they actually ran it well. But they don’t. That’s why they’re getting such a bad press.