How to get a good education — from the former headmaster of Eton

Reading Tony Little’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education — full of insight, erudition, sympathy and common sense — is a valuable education in itself

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

22 August 2015

9:00 AM

An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education Tony Little

Bloomsbury, pp.288, 16.99, ISBN: 9781472913111

An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education is Tony Little’s valedictory meditation on his profession, published on his retirement as headmaster of Eton. In a series of loosely connected essays, erudite and eccentric, he contemplates issues of fundamental concern to us all. What are schools for? How should teachers be educated? How do good schools work?

The book is rather oddly larded with insights from The Schoolmaster (1902) by A.C. Benson (brother of E.F. and Robert Hugh) who was, like Little, an Old Etonian who went back to teach at the school. Benson’s commentary on his own teaching experience is used as a touchstone, generally reinforcing Little’s civilising, rational approach to education.

These essays reveal Little’s vigorous moral vision. He believes in character and discipline, in agreeing boundaries and in giving boys a second chance, but possibly not a third.

He is interested in character education but acknowledges that this is a difficult issue for many schools. Eton has the advantage of time (its teachers are less constrained by bureaucracy than those in the state sector), resources and tradition. Crucially, it has teachers who ‘get it’, and it also has a thicket of traditions to underpin character education. ‘It becomes a virtuous circle: when a school has the confidence born of experience to give time and resources to character education, the more confidence it breeds in teachers.’

Young people grow to be part of the tribe at school, ‘learning where the parameters of behaviour lie, learning to accept and value discipline’. Society needs individuals with imagination and energy ‘but just as importantly it needs individuals to exercise restraint. Curbing personal dreams for a greater good is a defining mark of civilisation.’

Eton works, Tony Little says, because its pupils believe in the school and in its ways of doing things. ‘The truth is that the school operates well (indeed operates at all) because at root the pupils want it to work.’ He returns several times to this crucial insight.

The most illuminating — and idiosyncratic — section of Little’s book is his essay on adolescence. He uses neurobiology to explain why, precisely, teenage boys’ brains go haywire. The headmaster admits that he now realises that a carpeted pupil who replies to the question ‘Why did you do it?’ with ‘I don’t know, sir’ is telling the truth. Little’s sympathetic study of the adolescent brain is leavened with bracing common sense. He feels that we underestimate teenagers nowadays, pointing to the effectiveness of young naval officers in the age of sail as evidence that teenagers can assume considerable responsibility.

An essay on imagination stresses that this is the crucial element that will make young people effective in a globalised market place. The fashionable STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects ‘can be taken to a new dimension by imagination expressed through the creative arts. Stem becomes STEAM’. Pupils need to learn to discriminate if they are to navigate a world in which many professional tasks (dispensing legal advice, diagnosing disease) can be done by a machine. They need to be able to take new knowledge and use it in a different way. They need to be able to imagine.

Little’s book is self-evidently the product of a life spent in an intensely privileged environment, where preposterous traditions can become powerful opportunities for discussion of values that are crucial to civilised behaviour.

There is much in this Intelligent Person’s Guide, however, that is relevant to anyone involved in the struggle to educate young people and in particular to anyone trying to reform a school that has gone badly astray. In one of the later essays, ‘Turning it Around’, Little observes the successes of struggling heads of grim state schools. He describes the transformation of an establishment in Slough that was staffed by unambitious and complacent teachers who were utterly unconcerned by the arrival of their third new head in three years. They were confident that ‘local difficulties would be resolved, an objectionable, demanding new head would be seen off and life would continue as before.’ Within a year Little witnessed the new head’s success. He found the school calm and ordered with a sense of momentum and direction:

A high-performing school can by sustained by institutional momentum for a while. Heads in the business of turning around a school have no such luxury. They must necessarily concentrate on getting the basics right day by day — and that requires a deep well of energy from which to draw.

The chapter on spirituality is the least interesting element of this book. The author is good at morals, but religion at Eton, it would appear, is mostly sunbeams on ancient stone.

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful book. Tony Little captures the magic, the surprising alchemy that makes things work in an outstanding school, and offers hope and inspiration to people elsewhere who are battling lethargy and low standards.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £14.99 Tel: 08430 600033. Carey Schofield was until recently head of Langlands School and College in Chitral, Pakistan.

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Show comments
  • john

    Mr Little’s prescription should be:
    1. Be born to a rich, well connected family
    2. Grab every privilege possible
    3. Repeat for own offspring
    Eton is to show that the child is a member of the Establishment and should be favoured accordingly.

    • LastmaninEurope

      A sour, unhelpful, comment.

      • john

        But in class based Britain – regrettably – true.
        Let Mr Little describe his success in working with unruly kids in a deprived area.

        • Pacificweather

          He may not have experience in a deprived area but, judging by his pupils’ behaviour outside school, he has experience with unruly kids.

        • LastmaninEurope

          That is not his remit here.

          Try Twitter, its a great place for trolling.

        • davidofkent

          The problem is in the use of the word ‘deprived’. there are no deprived areas in the country. However, there are areas that are inhabited by proportionately more people of very low qualifications and aspirations than others. The best thing that can be done for children is to ensure that they get their heads down into the books and learn to study profitably. When offered 12 years of free education (they probably pay no taxes), the parents should be grateful as well as sensible to the opportunity for their children.

          • john

            Well I’m delighted that Britain has no deprived areas but I wonder if that opinion is widely held?
            My point is that working with Eton students (paying 50000 quid pa) is a lot easier than working with kids in the Gorbals or Bootle or other working class area.

          • streetsj

            Why is it easier?

          • john

            I’m sure most people can easily see that teaching a few rich kids at Eton is a lot easier than handling a classroom in an underprivileged comprehensive.

          • streetsj

            I didn’t say it wasn’t, I asked why?

          • ajcb

            Good question. Materially poor kids elsewhere in the world (genuinely poor, not UK-“deprived”) manage to apply themselves and learn. In the UK, this is a sub-cultural problem of automatic resistance to authority, envy, perversity and cutting-off-nose-to-spite-face. If learning is not valued at home, kids won’t learn at school.

          • sevanclaig

            Widely held? Obvious is therm term I would use.

          • sevanclaig

            Nailed it.

          • rtj1211

            Learning from books does not teach you power relationships, Mafia cultures or the pernicious nature ofEstablishment surveillance. Teach them the ways of corrupt power so they compete on a level playing field.

        • rtj1211

          Plenty of emotionally deprived rich kids at public school mate. Drink, drugs vandalism – plenty of that at public school. Did Eton teach Bullingdon boys to trash restaurants in Oxford? It should certainly bear responsibility for it, censuring its alumni in coruscating, very public terms. It doesn’t which shows the lie of this self-serving article…..

    • Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves

      Funny how the clear signal of elite and privileged makes the incumbents want it to work. I expect the peers want the House of Lords to work. I’m sure the pampered kickaballs want Manchester Utd to work. I think the Windsor’s are keen for monarchy to work.

  • MartinWW

    We always knew, instinctively, that ‘teenagers brains go haywire’, but there is now a greater abundance of research to show why and how. Because this developmental stage is well understood, it should be apparent to all (but not to political shysters and the information-lite) that giving votes to 16 year olds is fraught, and should be strongly resisted. Cameron was, of course, stupid to accede to Salmond’s demand in the Scottish elections, which has now made it more difficult to resist in the rest of the country.

    • LastmaninEurope

      A prospective Liberal candidate in Canada was recently forced to withdraw after some of her Twitter posts were published.

      The mitigation proffered at one stage was “I did these as a teenager”

      This, from a party advocating the lowering of the voting age to 16.

      You couldn’t make it up.

      • Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves

        Voting age should be 20.

  • Roger Hudson

    I shall be interested to read, via the Kindle version, what if any ideas he has about the big divide in education : single gender or co-educational schools?

  • rtj1211

    Eton works because of the power of the Old School tie…..

  • Maverick Ways