Eton Mess

etonThe Labour Party is threatening (again) to attack public[1] and other feepaying schools. In particular, they propose to make it more difficult for pupils from such schools to get to university, and to remove buildings and playing fields from such schools.

There is a good point about inequality in education. It would be sensible for the best education to be given to the brightest children, not the children of the parents with the most money[2]. But how to go about this?

The Labour Party approach is to destroy the best schools. A much better approach would be to make the best schools more available to the most promising children, regardless of the means of their parents.

Attacks tend to be focused on Eton. I am no particular fan of Eton, and my older son had pretty much from birth a house place[3] there, and would have gone there, but from the utter improbability of him ever passing a common entrance paper in Latin (apart from that, he was, and is, a genius[4]). I do not go to Eton myself, but to Eastbourne College. That was probably a mistake: I was offered the choice of St Paul’s in London (where my father had gone as a boy) or Eastbourne (where my brother was), and unwisely chose Eastbourne. I then let my father down by not obtaining a scholarship; again it was the Latin that was the problem. There were two scholarship papers in Latin, and for some reason I remember to this day my scores: 14% in the first paper and 7% in the second paper. I think I did okay apart from that: the school’s response was to (unusually) exempt me from ever having to study Latin ever again, and instead instantly promoting me by a full academic year. Which saved my father a whole year’s worth of school fees. And so that was welcome to him.

Anyway, back to Eton.  As it happens, they have one of the most generous schemes of scholarships and bursaries of any school. Their website says this:


Means-tested bursaries are awarded to those pupils whose parents/guardians wouldn’t otherwise be able to pay the full fees. An independent company will assess the family finances during a home visit and make a recommendation to us. This isn’t a test but is designed to produce a fair assessment.

We support as many applications as possible. In 2017/18, 254 pupils were receiving a means-tested bursary (averaging a 65% reduction in fees), with 82 students paying no fees at all.

If the Labour Party ever get into power, and go through with their proposal, it will be hugely expensive for the country, since at the moment the State is relieved from the cost of having to provide an education for all the children who go to feepaying schools.[5] A much better use of that money would be to require all feepaying schools to award more scholarships and bursaries, and to provide some public money to support that requirement.

In parallel, some of that money might go into additional funding for grammar schools. The system used to be that the most promising children in the state education system would be given the opportunity to go to elite schools (the grammar schools) where no fees were payable. It was a very useful highway for social mobility, and it is something of a disgrace that, a generation ago, Socialist politicians who had obtained their education through the grammar school system then kicked the ladder away once they had climbed it, and more or less destroyed the grammar school system.

Ultimately, it is not  a moral, or even social justice, point, but a practical point. As the French have long recognised[6], it is highly desirable for the prosperity of the country the most promising children are identified and given the best education possible. It is not so much for the benefit of those children who, being bright, will probably do all right in life anyway. It is for the benefit of the country, so that the most important positions in politics and industry are occupied by the cleverest people.

The Labour Party apparently do not care about that. Theirs is the politics of envy, in which the destruction of privilege is an end in itself, even if such destruction damages everyone in the country.



[1] Note to Americans: in English, public schools are feepaying secondary schools. They are so-called because, instead of the sons of privileged families having their own private tutor, they were educated at schools open to other such sons.

[2] The two categories are not, of course, mutually exclusive. Like it or not, the laws of genetics dictate that the cleverest parents tend to be relatively well off, and they tend to have clever children. But these are no more than general tendencies, and these laws of genetics are laws with many exceptions.

[3] A house place at Eton is a sort of reserved place, subject only to passing Eton’s very high academic entrance standards at common entrance exams, taken at 13 years old.

[4] In a typically rather wacky gesture, he demonstrated that later by getting admitted to Mensa. I asked him why he would do any such thing. He replied in a rather slow drawl that he thought it might perhaps come in useful sometime.

[5] Unlike Australia, where feepaying schools get support from the government to reflect the fact that they are shouldering part of the education burden.

[6] Not least through their Grande Ecoles system

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