I am not sure of the wisdom of writing this article: but, after some months of thought, I felt it necessary to do so. Every time I see my old school heavily criticised in the press, I sit down at my keyboard. But I then experience such a range of emotions – chiefly frustration, rage, and sadness – that I end up deleting several drafts, and finally folding my laptop away. Today, though, I think it is necessary to sit here and type till I finish.
I have Lucy Mangan of The Guardian to thank for this final prompt. Yesterday she filed a piece about the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, in the course of which she wrote that:
“we are…just a few days away from the traditional furore about the number of white, upper-class, privately educated, male students who get into Oxford and Cambridge, compared with the percentage of non-pink, non-posh, non-privileged, non-penised people who go on to study in the land of dreaming spires or a punt-strewn idyll. It happens every year, and every year it is a bigger waste of time.
“It is true, of course, that in some quadrangles you cannot throw a stick without hitting an Old Etonian. This is what makes throwing sticks in quadrangles such fun. And it is equally true that the dominance of such people at these (and other) universities is unfair, inequitable and unconscionable.”
I am wholly conflicted here. On one hand, I hate the idea that I am part of a group of school alumni whom it is fair game to mock as posh, pampered and out of touch. On the other hand, I hate the idea of inequality of opportunity, of which Eton is her metaphor. I hate the fact that Eton, which I love for many reasons, is routinely singled out from hundreds of private schools for public ridicule. It makes me bristle in the same way that you would if you heard a stranger slagging off a family member. At the same time, I get it, for the same reason that there is currently such fury at Britain’s bankers. We signify the rule by the few for the few. This last sentence will be news to my bank manager; but, all the same, it is true.
I also think, further to Ms. Mangan’s comments about a “waste of time”, that in the media we should spend more time celebrating the excellence of universities other than Oxford, which I attended, and Cambridge. My father attended Cardiff University and then Edinburgh, an education good enough to make him one of the first black consultant surgeons in the UK. My mother, a GP, went to Manchester, which was then and remains a superb place to study. The London 2012 Olympics showed that Britain’s achievers come from a diversity of places. What is true of athletics is also true of academia. We spend too long, I think, extolling the virtues of two universities, whilst in my professional and personal life I am inspired by outstanding graduates from Leeds, Exeter, Southampton, University College London and so on.
Further to being on the receiving end of sticks, I am very proud to have attended Eton. Many people will say in the defence of Old Etonians that they did not choose to go there, but that is not true in my case. When I was eleven years old, I passed up a place at the local grammar school because I had seen a documentary about Eton on Channel 4, and had been struck by the history and the majesty of the place. It was a little like being on the verge of signing terms with Sunderland, and then paying a visit to Old Trafford. And so I went to a prep school for two years on an assisted place scheme, crammed subjects I had either never learned before or even heard of, and ended up gaining a fifty per cent bursary to study at Eton. My father had passed away many years before then, and so I will be forever grateful for the financial assistance that the school gave to my family, as well as the many fantastic role models that it gave me.
The five years I spent at Eton were, in many ways, a life-defining experience. Its scholarship entrance examination remains the hardest test I have ever sat. The boys I met there were some of the kindest people I have ever met, some of the most intelligent, and certainly the most competitive. No matter how hard you worked, there was always someone more diligent. You might think yourself smart, but you would be in a class with not one genius but three or four at a time. I felt no room for complacency there: every mark was earned. Every grade was grafted for. Every two terms, you were ranked from 1 to 256 against your fellow students in year-wide examinations. Your positions were read out in a countdown in front of your peers. The tension of X-Factor had nothing on this.
In that sense, then, Eton was supremely meritocratic – once you got there, of course. Sadly, I also understand why Ms. Mangan might think it funny to swing sticks at us. Our country is currently being run by an unhealthily homogenous group of people, and that narrowness of vision is, I think, reflected in many of their policies. My anger at her piece was the implication that, by virtue of my education there, I automatically shared their outlook on society, which I emphatically do not.
A close friend has repeatedly asked me to remember that I was an anomaly there, the exception to the rule, and in some ways she is right. At one point, I was one of only two black pupils out of a total of just over 1250 boys. But, as David Cameron and Boris Johnson are faced with charges of arrogance, I can safely say that I was far from the only person at Eton without a sense of entitlement. Unfortunately, it looks as if some of those with such a sense have embarked on a career in politics.
Eton gave me two things. The first thing was the final catalyst for my ambition, which was already pretty superheated by the time I got there. As a result, I tend to look upon much of what I have achieved so far as a failure to achieve my true potential. The second thing was a keen understanding of just how this part of the Establishment works. Put simply, you are constantly in the presence of successful adults, be they teachers, parents, or the busts of 19 Prime Ministers. The unspoken narrative is that, if you work your hardest, their success will one day be yours too. And, long after you have left, many of their contacts and references may prove invaluable.
On reflection, I am not sure that I have said anything new. But I have not yet heard a thoroughly convincing argument as to why my old school, and others like it – Wycombe Abbey, Westminster and St. Paul’s, to name but three – should continue to enjoy charitable status in the long run. They are brands, who benefit an increasingly smaller section of society. They are private schools, and perhaps the time is coming for the law to treat them as private enterprises.
This is not the only pressing problem that I have with Eton. I hesitate to criticise the personal manners of others, as it implies that my own manners are without fault. I must say, though, that I was often shocked by some of the snobbery I saw there, which on occasion took the breath away. Most of my tutors were ruthless in calling it out, but you can’t undo some people’s upbringing in just a few years. Had a few of my contemporaries ended up in the Bullingdon Club, I would not have been surprised.
When all’s said and done, I took issue with Ms. Mangan’s article for one reason: I didn’t go to Eton so that I could learn how to look down on other people. I went there because I wanted to acquit myself against the best. There is almost nothing more thrilling than putting yourself in the right position to thrive. As a result, I entirely agree with her that there should be far greater diversity in the intake of Oxford, and Cambridge, and other universities. I just hope that she is a little less gleeful when, stick in hand, she next enters the quadrangle.