A modest media sensation erupted earlier last week when a question in Eton College's 2011 King's Scholarship entrance exam emerged, which asked students to write a speech as Prime Minister in the year 2040 against the backdrop of military intervention to curb civil unrest. It isn't the first time this exam question has surfaced in our tabloids, but it serves as a healthy reminder that at the top institutions, students are being bred for leadership and public office.

The King's Scholarship

The King's Scholarship is a prestigious academic scholarship offered by Eton College, and is awarded to boys who demonstrate exceptional academic ability and potential. Candidates are typically between the ages of 13 and 14 and are assessed through a rigorous selection process that includes academic tests, interviews, and assessments of their intellectual curiosity and potential.

King's Scholars receive a full fee remission for their education at Eton, as well as additional financial support for books and other expenses. They also receive special privileges and opportunities within the school, such as priority access to certain courses and activities, and the opportunity to represent Eton in academic competitions and events.

In what seems to be a trend we’ve borrowed from a bygone era, Britain is still governed by an elite ruling class who share one defining characteristic: their education. Founded by King Henry VI in 1440, Eton College is the alma mater of not one, two, but 20 British Prime Ministers - including our recently ousted First Lord, Boris Johnson. So-called 'the school that runs Britain', Eton is drenched in mythology as many writers have tried to identify what gives this 600-year-old institution its leadership monopoly.

Just like any other organisation, every school has a culture. And despite all the talk, there must be one thing that distinguishes Eton from your average local comp, beyond just the outfits, the buildings and its famous alumni. Word on the street is that Eton is a place where the UK's entitled go to receive even more entitlement, and with fees of £26,490 a year for tuition and accommodation, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the college's culture is one of prestige. This is without talking about the Victorian uniforms and the ancient rulebook, which has led to some people's impressions of Eton viewing it as a rigid, conformist institution for the wealthy - where students are taught how to navigate the corridors of power before they even hit puberty.

Students from Eton College dressed in their finery and surrounded by hallowed halls.
Students from Eton College dressed in their finery and surrounded by hallowed halls. Image from etoncollege.com.

However, former Etonians themselves have come out and struck back at the rumours, and have tried to paint a coherent image of why being educated at Eton is so valuable. One has it down to the amount of freedom given to students. Many of the societies, activities and extracurriculars at Eton are run by the students themselves, and so in order to rise to a leadership position in one of these societies, an Etonian must be elected by his peers. Already, in his pre-teens, the Etonian must make himself electable - albeit, to other Etonians - but this is a skill that even seasoned politicians fail to develop in their careers, let alone when they were at school.

Others talk of an 'Etonian level of ambition', and that the most successful students at the school - the elite of the elite - foster a culture of determination which is helped by the school's premium on individualism. The 600-year-old doors to Eton are also revolving ones, with a succession of industry and political speakers visiting Eton and telling the boys that they are the future leaders of the world. All this and it is unsurprising that the school has had a monopoly on the keys to 10 Downing Street for centuries.

This cannot continue, however. We have seen time and time again how elitism and classism in British politics leads to detrimental impacts on the nation itself. Impacts that have led one Guardian columnist to describe the success of elitist institutions in cultivating our future leaders as centring 'on an ancient system that trains a narrow caste of people to run our affairs'. This is not how 21st-century government should be done. Rather, we should look forward to a government that is for the people, by the people, but, most crucially, of the people. In order for politics to be truly representative we need politicians to be, first and foremost, citizens. Neighbours, friends, family members; human beings. Not members of a bygone ruling class, or the 'Old Guard'. So, what can we do to make this happen?

Well, before we have a complete reform of the way we 'do' education in this country - my favourite thing to talk about as you may well have noticed - we need to start right at the bottom, in each and every locality and every school in the land. We need to encourage schools to develop cultures that foster students' confidence in the same way the Etonians exude it. We need a cultural change.

The importance of school culture cannot be underestimated: educators have obvious impacts not just on students' learning, but on their lives and careers, and a positive culture influences educators' desire to advance student-teacher relationships and achievement. The necessity to create a culture of excellence, however, must be approached with a focus that extends beyond just grades and more in creating lifelong passions for learning. But as well as this, we must ensure every student in the country has access to that Etonian level of ambition and determination.

Students at the very bottom of the ladder are befallen by a lack of real ambition in their education, and even those who have aspirations are often told to be 'realistic'. Even those under the guise of championing the cause of working people secretly nurture hushed doubts about whether those people can, in fact, rise to the top. Well, they can, they just need to be shown it’s possible.

At Eton, students are constantly reminded that they are the 'next generation of leaders', yet why is this not said to schools up and down the country? Students from low-income or working-class backgrounds need to be given a sense of opportunity in order to feel like university is a realistic option, and so schools need to be driven to motivate and inspire students, not just teach them their core subjects. Coming from an ordinary background myself, it wasn't until just before I sat my GCSE exams that I found true motivation and true passion. I took this with me into A-Levels and it has served me well academically. I applied for internships, work experience, lectures, and conferences, and managed to make a wealth of connections.

But I found that my own motivation to be a better person than I was yesterday was the only source as such. Teachers and students alike laughed off my ambition of one day wanting to be Prime Minister, yet, if at Eton, it would be a perfectly reasonable ambition. I think this is probably because my obsession with all things political weirded them out a bit, but still, it's not enough to dismiss the ambitions of students just because they are at the bottom of the educational ladder.

Before the reforms I have talked about in other articles can be implemented, we must have a huge overhaul of school culture. Indeed, when I was making my application to Harvard, it wasn't a stretch to say that I had been alienated from the rest of my Sixth Form. People were astounded that one of their own had their eyes on an Ivy League, yet when I asked them why they didn't consider it, they dismissed it as being 'unrealistic'. I was also notably disappointed in the lack of effort my leadership team put into making this option available to other students, all academically brilliant in their respective ways and subjects.

I digress…

Behind the tailcoats, Grade I listed buildings and the prestigious speaker events, Eton has a monopoly on high office for one main reason: Etonians believe they can. Students at the Downing Street boot camp are constantly reminded that the world is their oyster and they can go on to achieve anything they set their minds to. We need to start doing this for all students, not just those whose parents can cough up a year's salary to pay tuition.

Archie Rankin
Archie Rankin

A young, pen-wielding Liberal with intellectual curiosities in all things politics, with huge appetites for history, philosophy and economics. Committed to making a positive difference for young people in my role as Associate Editor & Innovation Lead, constantly seeking out new ideas and approaches to drive innovation and progress.

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