Letter: Rear Window: Placing the rough with the smooth: State school boys at Eton

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The Independent Online
'HOW ARE you going to mix a boy whose father is a general with a boy whose parents keep a grocer's shop in Pimlico? And if they did mix at school, would the grocer's boy be happy in the holidays? And what about his accent? If a cockney boy went home talking like boys talk here, the whole street would set on him.'

The words are from a play, The Guinea-Pig, which had a run in the West End in 1946 and then became a Boulting brothers film starring Richard Attenborough. The plot follows a boy from a humble background who, in the post-war climate of change and reform, is sent to a leading public school.

The same clash of cultures was evoked last week when it was announced that Eton would open its doors to 40 school pupils from the London borough of Brent. They will spend a week having their educational sights raised, in the hope that they will stick with school beyond 16 and perhaps aim for university.

'Eton and Brent are not normally mentioned in the same breath,' admitted Eric Anderson, headmaster of Eton. But he hoped the scheme would 'inspire the students, raise their expectations and increase their chances in life'. Few who saw The Guinea-Pig on stage, or the film when it came out in 1948, would have imagined that half a century on Eton would still exist as a top-of-the-line private school, let alone that it would be rescuing state-school pupils from their own low expectations.

The assumption then, fostered by the 1944 Fleming Report on public schools, was that schools that drew their pupils exclusively from the upper class were doomed.

Much of the play, by Warren Chetham-Strode, is taken up by exchanges on this question between Hartley, the old-fashioned housemaster, and Lorraine, the progressive young history teacher. The backdrop is the school career of the 'guinea-pig', Read, a tobacconist's son from Walthamstow who struggles at first, but then appears to adapt to public school ways.

Hartley has no time for Read: 'A boy like that will always revert to type. He comes from a slum and he's got a mind like a slum.' Lorraine defends the boy: 'Changes are coming, Hartley. I want the Reads of this world to have a chance.'

In the end Lorraine succeeds Hartley as housemaster, promising reforms 'in rules, in methods, in systems'. 'Will it be a jolly good show?' his fiancee asks. 'It's got to be,' he declares as the curtain falls.

The Guinea-Pig was not mere fiction. In the post-war years a number of county councils, prompted by the Fleming Report, decided to send boys to Eton and other leading public schools at ratepayers' expense.

One such boy was Brendan Lehane, the son of a teacher rather than a tobacconist, but 'probably lower middle class', he says now. He was in a grammar school in Barnet, north London, when his mother saw the opportunity of a public school place advertised and jumped at it. He was examined, interviewed and accepted for Eton.

Looking back after 40 years - he is now a journalist and the author of several books - he views his education with mixed feelings, and admits his Old Etonian clothes feel at times like borrowed robes. Like Read, Lehane had difficulty adapting (he recalls causing a tremendous fuss by putting three pens in the top pocket of his jacket). Also like Read, he suffered because his background was taboo. 'The general instruction was that nobody should ever talk about it. It was absolutely poisonous.' But he desperately wanted to fit in and ultimately succeeded, 'largely because Etonians, as a rule, are extremely nice and extremely polite people'.

Lehane went on, again like Read, to Cambridge, where he read classics 'because I thought it was an Etonian thing to do'. In later years he enjoyed what he calls social benefits from his school connections. 'I certainly mixed with different people than I would have otherwise.'

By his own admission, however, he lacks the confidence which he regards as the distinguishing mark of the Old Etonian. He also lacks the money. Most Etonians are rich even before they start school. Brendan Lehane may have shared their education, but he didn't share their fortune.

(Photographs omitted)