Change at the top

Tony Little, the head master of Eton, has opened up the school to the public gaze. Hilary Wilce speaks to a man shaking up centuries of tradition
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The Independent Online

What is going on at Eton? For years - centuries - this educator of prime ministers and princes has turned its back on the outside world, rarely contributing to educational debate and keeping the media at many arms' length.

What is going on at Eton? For years - centuries - this educator of prime ministers and princes has turned its back on the outside world, rarely contributing to educational debate and keeping the media at many arms' length.

Then, two years ago, along came a new headmaster Tony Little, who likes to use the word "open" about as often as Labour ministers like to talk of "hard-working families" or "policy-rich manifestos". What he is trying to do, he says, "is encourage everyone to think in a slightly different way. To be more open about what we do, and to be more open as a community".

More than that, he is encouraging other independent schools to do the same. In a recent speech to prep-school heads he urged them not to be defensive, but to fling open their doors by setting up more bursaries, broadening access, and lobbying government about all the good things they can offer. He strongly believes that independent schools, with their clear sense of purpose and freedom to do things in their own way, have a lot to contribute to the educational world, and to society at large.

But it was another section of that same speech that really set his e-mail buzzing. He urged heads to stand up to the "father aggressively urging victory at all costs on the touchline, the mother bullying staff to change teaching arrangements, the parents wholly supportive of the school's disciplinary policy until it affects their child", who "hinder and even damage their children". The independent school world, it seems, is delighted to have a prominent figure like him standing up and telling it like it is.

Little knows, however, that being open always brings flack as well as support and that being head of Eton increases this a hundredfold. His decision last year to appoint a Muslim cleric to support the school's 20 Muslim students, and to introduce Arabic as a curriculum option, gathered global headlines and a sickening crop of hate mail. "I was damned as the anti-Christ and all sorts." His replacement of a zero-tolerance drugs policy with a more liberal regime of contracts and counselling also drew fire.

"But as an institution you have a choice. Either you draw your wagons round in a circle and protect what you do, or you allow the risk of contact and connection."

At the school, contact and connection has meant allowing pupils to have mobile phones - they all probably did anyway, he says - and introducing tours of the school for prospective parents. "Also, hang on to your hat, this is really radical. In my first year here, the school held its first-ever parent-teacher evening." Previously, contact had been through housemasters alone. "It's a lot of little things, but put them all together and it's an attempt to make us more responsive to families, and more responsive to a broader constituency."

In terms of the wider world, Little is a governor of a neighbouring maintained school, and Eton has "a raft of new connections with local schools and communities" although, he points out, it has long run various partnership schemes, including a decade-old summer-school project with Brent schools. Such programmes are now virtually essential to independent schools, which need to prove their public worth to protect their charitable status, but Little also sees it as a duty, and part of the necessary broadening of the school.

He went to Eton himself, but stresses this was as a music scholar, with the school paying almost all his fees, and that his education started in a state primary school. He went on to read English at Cambridge, did a postgraduate teaching certificate there, then spent the next few decades knocking around different corners of the independent school world. "None of this was planned. It just sort of dawned on me that I could carry on doing all the things I liked - plays, sport, music - by becoming a teacher. And then, back in the Seventies, there was a serious worry about getting a job, so I took what came up."

From Tonbridge School, an academic boys' boarding in the south-east, he moved via the multicultural milieu of London's eastern fringes to a deeply rural co-educational boarding in middle England, gathering on the way his first headship, at the age of 35, at Chigwell School. From there he went to Oakham School, in Rutland, where boarding numbers were plummeting and there was plenty of scope for a new head to have an impact. That luxury doesn't exist at Eton. Even so, one of his first actions was to get staff to think about the school's core values, something, he says, that was greeted with "a certain amount of scepticism and cynicism", but which proved useful in identifying consensus. "One of the big tricks for me here is to balance out two completely different approaches to teaching and the classroom, the more old-fashioned, school-masterly one, where people just get on and do it, and the younger professionals who have been more overtly trained in a certain way."

Little, 50, is clearly big on balance. He hates the way the tick-box bureaucrats are squeezing the heart out of education, but believes league tables and inspections have done a lot to "blow away some self-delusions".

He accepts that Etonians can be arrogant, but says that pupils are far more aware of their privilege, and their need to carve out their own path in the world, than they were in his day. He's a fan of the International Baccalaureate, but says it doesn't suit everyone. In fact he is already freeing up the curriculum so that boys can skip GCSEs and move straight to AS-levels - getting GCSEs, he said last year, "was like Scouts collecting badges" - although he is pleased that the result has not been a "lemming-like rush for everyone to do this".

Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector who is about to deliver his report on reforms to 14-to-19 education, has been in to consult with the school a couple of times, and "the golden package that he could deliver for me would be a clear and transparent statement of what young people should have attained at 18, but with the constraints taken off up to that point so you can get there by whatever means you choose. I do find it strange that we have a situation where universities take significantly into account candidates' examination profiles at 16".

However, the current system appears to do the school no harm. When it comes to university entrance, Eton remains untouched by any swing towards state-school candidates. "Our Oxford and Cambridge successes have gone up over the past four years. Last year we had 79 accepted."

Some things, it seems, will never change. The school will stay at the top of the academic tree. Boys will continue to wear wing collars and tail coats. Girls will not be seen on the campus (even though Little, who is proud of the fact that his previous school was "genuinely co-ed" muses that it would be "fun" to oversee such a change).

However, the world beyond the playing fields is changing fast and even Eton will need to keep pace. And, says Little, it will.

"The tabloid impression of a place like this is always of people in funny clothes, shackled by its own history, and to be fair there is some element of that. But when you're on the inside, working day by day, it doesn't seem like that at all. And, you know, there's actually a great appetite here for thinking about how we can do things in a different way."