Sam Leith
Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator, a columnist for the FT and the author of Write To The Point: How To Be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page (Profile Books)

This week, children across the country will be heading back to school; we asked our contributors to do the same. In this series, our writers share some lessons they learned at school – and how it shaped the way they think about education today.

 

I went to Eton. I am – here, he cringes in anticipation of a blow – an Old Etonian. Given the visibility of Old Etonians in our public life, and the widespread and understandable view that their influence has not been entirely for the good, I make this confession hesitantly when I make it at all.

Nobody wants to admit to “privilege” – but privileged we all, without any doubt, were. Had I not gone to Eton (I make, here, the disclaimer that I was a scholarship boy, in the hopes of claiming that I at least in part earned the privilege), I would not have had access to the cascade of educational wonderments I did enjoy.

You could not, not in a million years, claim plausibly that this was just another school – still less that it does not confer a vast and unfair advantage to its alumni, over the alumni of even the best schools in the state system. Yes, we all dressed like penguins and tourists pointed at us. But it was a small price to pay.

I studied Russian for A-level – and went on exchange visits to Moscow and (as it was then) Leningrad. We had an Olympic-quality rowing lake and a nine-hole golf course. We had a school theatre that would not have disgraced a mid-size provincial town. The Art Schools let you do any art – up to and including welding giant steel sculptures – that you fancied.

Our College Library owns a Gutenberg Bible and when, writing an essay on Sylvia Plath, I also found there not only her canon in individual volumes but a good handful of secondary literature including a book-length Lacanian study of the Ariel poems. When the politics or debating or literary societies invited speakers, it was by no means unusual to find ourselves listening to cabinet ministers, prizewinning novelists or economists of international repute.

And at what other school – as happened at ours – would the authorities decide to send a promising student of Russian and German over to Berlin in term-time because it would be nice for him to witness the fall of the Berlin Wall firsthand?

But among the many things I got from my education was a sense of the way power works in institutions. Eton is intensely hierarchical. Status is marked by dress and form of address. Are you a KS (King’s Scholar) or an OS (Oppidan Scholar)? Are you Ma or Mi? Do you wear a gown or stick-ups (the wing collars and white bow ties that mark older boys of special status from the common herd)? We were as minutely graded – and as publicly graded – as the figures in a medieval painting, arranged according to size and position on the canvas to indicate their place in the Great Chain of Being.  

Most jaw-dropping of all to me, in retrospect, was the “Reading Over” process, by which the results of the termly “trials” exams were announced. The whole of your year group – about 250 boys – would gather in the school theatre, and the results would be read out to everybody… in reverse order of success. So the process opened with the one or two boys who had achieved a grade called (it really was called that) a “General Total Failure”. I still remember the names of the boys who scored a GTF in my first term – but I won’t name them because they’re probably now captains of industry and it’s bound to be against the Human Rights Act by now.

But the real genius of that school’s set-up is in how it co-opts potential resistance as part of what old-fashioned Marxists would call the Repressive State Apparatus (and, for that matter, the Ideological State Apparatus). Put in plain terms, they turned all the most promising potential rebels – the handsome sportsmen, the charismatic floppy-haired teen idols – into the kapos of this particular punishment facility.

There were two prefect bodies. One was called Sixth-Form Select. This was reserved for the boys who had performed best in trials over the preceding five years: the swots. Its members got to wear stick-ups and shiny buttons on their waistcoats and they commanded the respect of pretty much nobody. If, as a member of Sixth-Form Select, you were petty enough to tell off a younger boy on the street for showing a “white triangle” (untucked shirt peeping through the bottom of a waistcoat) they’d likely laugh at you.

The main privilege of being in Sixth-Form Select was that you got to do “The Bill”, which meant that – when on duty – you walked around the school summoning boys from their classes to see the Headmaster for punishment. This meant that, since you were on the Headmaster’s business, you didn’t technically have to show any deference to the teacher taking the class: you just (and we took special pleasure in this) kicked open the door and roared: “Is Stewart OS in this division?”

But, no, Pop was where the action was. It’s commonly thought, though nobody’s quite sure, that “Pop” stands for “popular”; it might as well have. This was the prefect body that people actually wanted to be in. They campaigned to be in it. They craved it. Because Pop was self-elective: the outgoing members elected the new ones. It was golden boys passing on their laurels to golden boys.

And once you were in Pop (full disclosure: I was in the other mob and I’m still bitter about it) you got to wear not only stick-ups but grey checked “spongebag” trousers and a coloured waistcoat of any sort you liked. And they liked fancy: some boys wore Mr Men waistcoats, or waistcoats made of safety matches, or custom-made waistcoats in the colours of football teams. Pop were the peacocks of the school.

And in exchange for this unimaginable level of visible status and privilege, these boys – as I say, potential figureheads of rebellion every one: the cool kids, the ones younger boys would imitate – willingly became figureheads of the regime. They had some fun duties (“Pop patrol” saw them tour the pubs of Windsor checking for miscreants, and they were allowed a drink in each one to help them blend in). But they also, for instance, had to stand on Windsor Bridge for hours in the pouring rain telling passing boys to tuck their shirts in. They were thoroughly bought and sold – and the extent to which they were bought and sold, the price at which they had been bought and sold, was visible on their chests. Vanity. They sold themselves to the system for the right to wear a Mr Man waistcoat.

It was brilliant, and it totally did the trick. The intoxicating idea of being that teenage god in a Mr Man waistcoat – the childish desire to thrive in a hierarchy where status was universally visible and success meant something as simple and tangible as spongebag trousers and a white bow tie – is one that is imprinted deep on the souls of very many Old Etonians. And I suspect it continues to play a part in our politics to this very day.