Brains, beaks and tailcoats

As Prince William starts at Eton tomorrow, Judith Judd takes a look at Britain's most privileged public school. Right: we compare Eton with Cherwell, a top state school

Eton, where Prince William starts tomorrow, still occupies a unique position in British society. For the upwardly mobile, it remains the most likely passport to wealth and a mention in Who's Who. Its snobbish image remains intact. When London comprehensive school pupils spent a week there last year, the tabloids cried: "The Bash Street Kids meet Lord Snooty and his pals."

Undoubtedly, Eton has changed. Boys are no longer admitted because their fathers went there, but because they are clever. And most of them are very clever indeed. The line in the "Eton Boating Song": "At Rugby they may be more clever ..." no longer holds good. This year the school came fourth in the independent school A-level league tables. Parents can put their toddler's name down for a house, but the child will not be admitted unless he is bright. Only the cream of the nation's prep school boys is encouraged to apply and a high score in the Common Entrance Exam is required.

Once they arrive, academic competition is fierce. Arthur Hearnden, secretary of the Independent Schools Joint Council, says: "Eton is not for the faint- hearted. People shouldn't send their children there unless they are sure they can cope with the pressure."

But if their pupils have to be brainier than in the past, most still have to be rich. Fees are pounds 12,300 a year. The school is not part of the Government's assisted places scheme, which helps those from poor backgrounds to attend private schools, but around a fifth receive some help with fees. Mr Hearnden says: "It is much less socially exclusive than it was."

Yet much of the clientele is privileged in one sense or another. A sprinkling of aristocracy continues to arrive each September: the Duke of Montrose's son has just left, and the Duke of Roxburghe's heir started last autumn. Around a third of boys have fathers who were at the school. But if the numbers of the landed gentry have dwindled, those of the nouveaux riches have risen. "It is a hotbed of arrivisme," says one critic. "It is much more about getting into money, making it into the professions, and much less about the old patrician atmosphere of producing a sense of service. Parents who went to minor public schools try to move up a notch by sending their children to Eton."

Class snobbery based on background and wealth may be less prevalent, but it has been replaced by another kind of snobbery based on musical, intellectual or sporting ability. Unfashionably, the school heroes tend to be good sportsmen. An old Etonian who left three years ago claims that the intellectual elite of scholars who come from poor backgrounds but who gained their places through being exceptionally bright and who do not pay fees are not the victims of snobbery. They are just "treated differently. They live in a separate house and they want to move in Goethe and Wittgenstein circles and not the beer-swilling circles of the hoi polloi."

The least acceptable face of modern Eton is a group that flaunts its hedonism and its money. Membership of some school cliques depends on being wealthy. The old Etonian quoted above says: "There are some London-based groups who go to a lot of parties and flash about a lot of money. Equally, there are groups who find this distasteful. The people in my year who had lots of homes were looked down on."

But if the social mix is broader than it once was, Eton remains a bastion of privilege. Its continuing ancient traditions serve to distinguish its pupils from those of other public schools, let alone the state schools that educate 93 per cent of the population. The uniform is hard to take seriously. Etonians have to wear a tailcoat, black waistcoat and pinstripe trousers and a stiff collar. Those who get elected to Pop, the prefects' society, wear grey trousers and any waistcoat they like. House captains wear bow ties. Boys who are late for lessons have their names entered in a "tardy book" and are obliged to report to the school office in uniform early in the morning.

So what are parents paying for? All boys, even the youngest, have their own study bedrooms. The facilities are splendid: beautifully maintained playing fields, two swimming pools, a golf course, a fine theatre, a school of design, and 26 science laboratories. The teaching is very good. Many of the beaks, as they are called, receive more generous salaries than their state school counterparts and some have doctorates. These are powerful attractions.

Mr Hearnden says: "It is the very model of a modern boarding school. It is very liberal and the boys have great independence, and yet the whole atmosphere is orderly and purposeful. It is the nearest thing to a university for boys."

For parents, there are other considerations. Etonians may no longer be assured of top jobs in politics, but both former pupils and parents believe that Etonian connections pave the way for a bright future. A successful stockbroker said recently: "I hated every minute of Eton, but now I'm loving it more and more." As one parent puts it: "If you know people, that is bound to help you get a job, particularly if you want to get into the City. In other professions, it's less useful."

An old Etonian in his second year at university says: "You can't help knowing that you are going to get good connections by going to Eton. I've used it once to jump the queue to get job interviews for holiday jobs. I know it's not correct, and for other jobs I've tried to go legit."

The school that is supposed to have won the battle of Waterloo still plays a powerful role in national mythology. It conjures up images of over-confidence and exclusivity, which sit uneasily alongside the idea of a classless society. It underlines the divisions running through the British school system.

Prince William will have to make his way as a modern monarch. Yet in the school chosen by his parents he will meet only a small selective group. He will, perhaps, learn more about the world than his grandmother, the Queen, who was educated at home, but not much. Eton has changed: it is less aristocratic and more meritocratic, but it is still remarkably different from the schools attended by most of those who will be his subjects.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high