Social class is as important a characteristic of British heritage as tea and colonialism. It also remains arguably, the most malignant impediment to socioeconomic mobility for the average person to date — our inherited social, cultural and economic capital essentially determine our trajectory in this stringent system of hierarchy, whether we become movers and shakers or just recession fodder. In austere times, it is pertinent to recall these social divisions because their impact determines whether you dine in the flavoursome middle or are stuck with the stale crust of the Great British hegemony.
Recent comments by Tony Little, current headmaster of Eton College (for boys only), and, surprisingly, the liberal-intellectual community have literally gratified what is one of the last and most stalwart vanguards of post-aristocratic power-maintenance – the independent school.
The purpose here is not to denigrate those men born of privilege and bred for power, nor even good old Eton itself. For in this synecdoche it is the whole, not the part, which is the problem. Scholars of "elite studies" have too long focused on trees whilst overlooking the woods. Private education is currently at the core of a divisive agenda of what should be an outdated principle of classist stratification, which is why Little’s comments, in this time of severe social inequality is indefensible and offensive to working people. That is, the vast majority of Britons.
Eton is often subject to a disproportionate degree of dissension from the left. It is neither the oldest nor the highest performing of its private compatriots; however, it has yielded to date nineteen British prime ministers and schooled several would-be monarchs. To say it is ‘costly’ is an understatement. Fees today are £32,067 ($51,307) — far above average British household income. Perhaps more importantly from a social-cultural perspective is that Eton is notoriously esoteric in nature, with its uniformity, archaic design and policy, and even its own institutional rhetoric.
It has become accepted that a great education is an expensive education. If it has become a breeding ground for "brilliance" it is principally because of its 500 year history and the various interplays of power, money and nepotism involved. The rhetorical question offered in reply is, "Don’t we want our leaders to be as highly educated as possible?"
Whilst the former may be true, but mostly attributable to the impact of free market capitalism upon education, the latter point can seem difficult to refute. It is typical of the kind of platitudes about private education you can expect from our current Old Etonian-dominated Tory cabinet — privileged, highly-educated white men. Eton itself also makes little attempt to closet its inaccessibility. Hiding the inadequacy of its token scholarship programmes is as difficult as hiding an elephant in an envelope.
Headmaster Little, an Etonian himself, considers it a "perverse logic" to scorn education that confers advantage on its students — not a particularly disagreeable sentiment. The problem is that advantage is not distributed throughout British society — hence, the true perversion lies in its institutional perpetuity through our system of education. So don’t dangle the bogus carrot of opportunity in front of millions of people who in all likelihood will never nibble it — not when their rights are being systematically deconstructed by the "austerity" of people who are privileged enough to have done so.