Tony Little is Headmaster of Eton College.
The Eton Headmaster’s guide to building character in male teenagers:-
1) Encourage them to aim high.
2) Celebrate their diverse individual achievements.
3) Give them genuine responsibility to take the lead.
4) Allow them to fail and learn from the experience.
5) Don’t treat them all the same way and show them understanding.
The world has changed so many times since 1440, when this school was founded by King Henry VI. What about Eton?
Eton has changed too, of course. No great institution survives unless it reinvents itself with each generation. When one visits Eton one is conscious of continuity and history, because of the ancient buildings and the school dress that we wear – but underneath the school is evolving all the time.
Why is this school so famous all over the world? And why is it so difficult to gain admission?
It’s a difficult question. I can tell you why it is a good school. There are four elements: (i) The tradition of Eton. If you live and grow up in a place where for almost 600 years generations of boys have gone on to do interesting things, there is an implicit question asked of the current generation, ‘Why not you?’ So it builds confidence in an individual’s ability to achieve things. (ii) Boys tell me that there is a very strong expectation of excellence from each other. It is interesting because it comes from other boys, not just from the teachers. (iii) There is a culture of being independent minded and standing up for your own beliefs, as well as being part of a community. (iv) When all these elements come together, it encourages young men to be people who want to get things done, dynamic people who believe they can make a difference.
Why only men?
Partly history, but also because there is a recognition that a boys-only school has strengths. One could make a good co-educational school out of Eton, but it would be very different.
But the world has changed and everywhere people want equality between the sexes?
The new schools in New York City, the Eagle Academies, which people are talking about because they are so effective, are boys-only schools.
What about the girls?
There are several excellent girls’ schools, and they tend to be smaller. For example, Wycombe Abbey School, which is girls-only with a very high academic achievement.
Are your academic achievements at Eton very good?
We don’t make our assessment of students coming to Eton only on the basis of academia.
What are your other criteria?
We look for three facets. First, that a boy is going to be able to cope with the academic environment. Second, we expect that boys coming here would have some other skill or enthusiasm which they could share with other boys. For example, it could be playing the clarinet, Egyptian archaeology or football. The point is that if the boy’s only focus is on the academic we don’t think he would make the most of his education here. The third thing, as best we can judge it we would want any boy coming here to have the emotional resilience to cope with the demands of living away from home.
You first came to Eton as a pupil yourself because of your musical talents. How did that happen?
It was rather special and it was because up to 1968 Eton had a Choir School – like Westminster Abbey Choir School – for boys from 9 to 13. I went to the Eton Choir School and was fortunate to be selected to go on to Eton College.
On a scholarship?
As Headmaster for 12 years have you increased the number and level of scholarships?
Now we have 250 boys with significant financial assistance. The average is a 60% remission of the fees, up to 100%.
Do you have students here from all over the world?
It is very much a British school, but we do have 10 to 12% of students who come from all over the world. The international demand is very high, but we are keen on remaining mostly a British school.
Is it more difficult for foreigners to gain admission?
There is no difference, except some foreign candidates have problems with the English language.
Tradition does not mean class distinction?
We wish to take boys with character and ability whatever their background is, and ethnicity or religion. In terms of religious faith, we have people who lead Anglican and Roman Catholic worship, and we have tutors for our Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist boys.
How many boys go on to university after their A-Levels?
260 leave each year, mostly all then go to university. Last year for example we had 99 offers from Oxford and Cambridge, 25 going to Ivy League universities and the rest going on to other British universities.
Do many become soldiers?
Not these days. Some, especially if they have a family tradition. But the number is much smaller than it used to be, reflecting the fact that the Army is now much smaller.
Are humanities still considered important in a world where so much attention is paid to science and technology?
The four big subject areas for the boys’ choice at university are Economics-related subjects, History-related subjects, Modern Languages (this is quite unique, the most popular are still French and Spanish, Mandarin is increasingly popular), and the fourth is Science. When boys have free choice these are the main areas of choice.
For how many years does a boy stay at Eton?
Five years, from age 13 to age 18. Very few boys leave, maybe one a year.
Does it give you an intellectual status when you graduate from Eton?
There is a recognition that Eton teaches students well.
Is it difficult to secure good masters?
Probably my most significant function as Headmaster is the recruitment of new masters. I am greedy and I want the best teachers there are; and generally we get them.
The age from 13 to 18 is quite difficult because it is adolescence, which can be troublesome. I expect you deal with it outside of simple school teaching?
It is a minority of their time that our boys are formally engaged in lessons. A majority of their time is spent in other activities and in developing relationships. The whole experience is their education, not just the academics.
My experience shows two things. First, boys learn more from each other than from adults. Second, they learn at least as much outside the classroom as inside the classroom. So, if you think that education is only the classroom you have missed hugely valuable opportunities to help young people develop into rounded personalities who would be effective in adult life.
Do you substitute for their family?
We supplement their family, but we never substitute.
What are the major problems you encounter?
The answer is obvious. I have 1,300 teenage males in the school, so we come across all kinds of behaviours and issues. The most interesting feature in 2014 is that it is possible to run a residential school for 1,300 students which is positive and forward looking. The only reason Eton College works well is because, generally speaking, the boys want it to. It is impossible to run a modern boarding school in the modern age without the cooperation and goodwill of the students.
Over the years of your long personal experience as a Headmaster, how have teenagers changed? Are they different now?
Human nature does not change much. We are still driven by the same impulses; love, fear, hate. Habits and perception do change, and in my working lifetime students are now more conscious of the competitive world they will enter, and generally they work harder than used to be the case.
Are the boys ambitious?
Most of them are.
What do you teach them?
The function of schools is to help create good citizens. That is why we have schools. One could stay at home and read books or pick things up on the internet. But the particular purpose of the construct we call a school is to create an environment in which young people come to an understanding of society and their place in it.
Would there be less terrorism if people were more aware of this?
I believe in the power of education to make life better for everybody.
How do you form young people’s political views?
By exposing them to a wide range of opinion and, crucially, encouraging them to develop a healthy scepticism. Scepticism is important, encouraging ways to question.
This is your last year. What are you going to do afterwards?
I will have been a Headmaster for 26 years. I will continue to be involved in education, but in a variety of projects. For example, I will be taking the role of President of the Boarding Schools’ Association.
Do you think that public schools have better results than state schools?
The evidence shows that independent schools perform, on average, at higher levels than state schools. In an ideal world there would be no demand for public schools, but, as things stand, independent schools (with only 7% of the pupil population) show what can be achieved.
All images reproduced by kind permission of and © Eton College.
16th September, 2014.