When Justin Welby was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury last week, a few guys in our newsroom joked that all application forms for major public posts should have a box you can tick, to say if you went to Eton (as Welby did) or not. The idea is that this would speed things up a bit. For positions such as Prime Minister, Mayor of London, and Archbishop, non-Etonians need not apply.
I noticed these jokers were silent when, this week, something called the Springboard Bursary Foundation announced it will send 2,000 pupils from poor backgrounds to leading state and private boarding schools by 2023. Eton has signed up for the scheme.
Possibly the only memorable line from David Cameron's speech to Tory party conference a few weeks ago was this: "I'm not here to defend privilege, I'm here to spread it." As an Etonian, he will presumably be pleased at this week's announcement. As a non-Etonian who finds himself in the curious position of having friends who tend to be Etonians, I am delighted, because in respect of our most prestigious secondary school I have long had a simple motto.
Don't carp about Eton: copy it.
The injustice of our school system is without doubt the most shameful and disgusting thing about being British. And yet banging on about this injustice isn't very productive. The point is to do something. Private schools are here to stay, so let's change the debate. Instead of bemoaning Eton's advantage, why don't we ask what we can learn from the school?
Money alone isn't the answer. I would point to three things, each of them gleaned from my first trip to the school earlier this year for a cricket match (the Authors CC, for whom I play, were thrashed by Eton's 3rd XI). First, stuff our state sector with world-class teachers. That means paying them better and making their lives less burdened by bureaucracy. Second, emphasise crunchy academic subjects, rather than soft skills. And third, improve pastoral care, by getting the maximum buy-in of parents in the school community to help nurture pupils' character. This is easier when the parents are rich and can afford the time off work, but I was struck by just how many adults there were per pupil at Eton, each of them emotionally invested in those children's future.
Such lessons are obvious. Teachers and parents in our state sector know them. Short of abolition, which isn't going to happen, only by learning from Eton will we spread privilege, rather than just defend it.