Who really stands to benefit from Eton’s expansion?
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Eton College has long been considered a hub of privilege, academic excellence, and elitism. Parents are willing to pay as much as £44,000 per year for tuition and board (waistcoat and bow tie sold separately) in the hopes that their sons will be given the secrets to be able to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Bear Grylls, George Orwell, and a modest handful of Prime Ministers. But now it seems that the world-renowned college is attempting to move away from its reputation for transforming young men, with more summer homes than good ideas, into the most powerful people in the country. Recently, it was announced that Eton will be pairing with Star Academy to launch three new state sixth forms in Middlesbrough, Dudley, and Oldham as early as 2025.
The three areas were chosen by Eton and Star Academy having all been identified as educational “cold spots” by the government, and the scheme is supposedly intended to give students from adverse backgrounds the chance to access a private school standard of education. Through adopting Eton’s educational ethos, as well as a set-up inspired by successful sixth forms with similar goals in London, the colleges will apparently aim to give pupils specialised support to achieve the top grades at A Level and get into prestigious universities.
However, it seems clear that the plan is hardly going to revolutionise state education as we know it. The colleges will only accept 240 pupils every year and are expected to be highly selective. Similar to institutions like the London Academy of Excellence, which frequently garner media attention for getting top grades and dozens of Oxbridge acceptances every year, Eton’s spin-off state sixth forms will only take on students who have already proven themselves to be highly capable by achieving top GCSE results. This means that, for Eton, this a low-risk, high-reward enterprise (especially if it’s using the millions of pounds it’s saved in charity tax breaks to pay for it): the set-up will allow them to pass off the achievements of their pupils as the schools own doing, whether that is truly the case or not.
Additionally, despite promises to focus their efforts on students from adverse backgrounds and deprived areas, there does not appear to be a clear plan as to how they are going to do this—the initial plans seem to operate on the view that simply being northern is disadvantageous enough. As a result, whilst the colleges might stand to give pupils access to an education they wouldn’t otherwise have had, Eton is the biggest benefactor of its own generosity. Inevitably, the institution will use its funding of the project as yet another attempt to distract from its reputation as a home for snobbery and breeding ground for politically incompetent leaders, by using its state students as show ponies. Andy McDonald, the Labour MP for Middlesbrough, has also expressed concerns that the plan disregards what is best for the targeted areas as a whole, implying that rather than promoting “social mobility”, it may instead simply increase educational disparities.
In short, though it is true that these colleges could provide some students with the support they need to realise their potential, the scheme is unlikely to tear down educational inequalities. Instead, it risks suggesting that improving the lives of certain students is good enough, leaving those who have not overcome the odds by themselves, and achieved exceptional GCSE grades, to fall by the wayside. All the while, it will allow Eton College to further its charitable appearance by taking credit for the accomplishments of the state sixth form pupils, no matter how big or small their part actually was. Meanwhile, the original school will continue to serve as a symbol of academic exclusivity, a welcoming home for elitism, and compelling evidence that generational wealth and an A Level in Classics does not make a decent Prime Minister.