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Eton mess: inside the battle to run Britain’s top public school

A school at war with itself

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

Speak to Tory ministers of a certain background and the question of succession soon arises. But the position they’re talking about is in Windsor, not Westminster – and it has nothing to do with skipping a generation of the monarchy. Pretty soon there will be a new Provost of Eton and, thanks to a quirk of history, it’s a Crown appointment. With so many Old Etonians in this government, including the Business Secretary, Brexit Opportunities Minister and the Prime Minister himself, there’s no shortage of opinions.

The incumbent, Lord Waldegrave, is expected to leave his post shortly, after 13 years – and at a time when a battle is being waged for Eton’s soul. When exercising their power to advise the monarch on her choice, recent premiers have deferred to the school’s preferred successor, but with Boris Johnson nothing is ever conventional. Unofficial campaigns are underway. Newspaper columns have begun touting candidates. For no matter how much British society changes, an unwritten rule always seems to apply: Etonians end up on top. Perhaps this is why the school remains a constant reference point in any discussion about education. As one rival public-school headmaster notes, ‘Where Eton goes, we all follow.’

Among the Old Etonians on the Tory benches (of whom there are even more than you might think) there is a critique of Waldegrave which echoes that of the OE in Downing Street. The power of the Provost lies mainly in his ability to appoint Eton’s headmaster. The charge against Waldegrave is that, to shore up his own power, he appointed an inexperienced head (much as Johnson has an inexperienced cabinet). As a result, Waldegrave has been more involved in the day-to-day running of the school than he should be.

Eton’s current troubles date back to Simon Henderson’s arrival as headmaster in 2015, ushering in one of the most contentious periods in Eton’s 580-year history. Henderson made his initial pitch as a quasi–Blairite with a passion for modern management techniques. He defined himself to the Daily Telegraph as ‘a normal sort of guy’, donning a tie for the photographs but discarding it immediately afterwards. He tweets. He displays books by the ‘patriarchy-smashing’ feminist Laura Bates. Aged 39, he was the youngest Eton headmaster in history. ‘Maybe I’m not everyone’s perception of what the Eton headmaster would be,’ Henderson said. ‘But I am the one they have got.’

What Henderson lacked in experience he made up for in reforming zeal. He arrived suggesting the school’s famous coat tails might be binned. He is said to disapprove privately of Eton’s single-sex set-up. There are now only four – Eton, Harrow, Sherborne and Radley – boys-only, boarding-only public schools left since Winchester agreed to admit girls last year. Eton’s ‘great awokening’ has led to the school genuflecting at the hastily assembled altars of progressive causes. A speaker from Stonewall was invited to lecture the school about gender transitioning. The Pride flag has been hoisted above the school’s gateway. Eton’s newly created ‘director of inclusion education’ has spoken of her desire to see the BLM one fly there too.


All of this has not been universally popular. One gay pupil wrote about how the reforms of ‘Trendy Hendy’ made it harder for him to come out, because identity politics had made the issue deeply contentious in a school whose students, he says, had always been relaxed and open-minded. Last year, an English master – Will Knowland – was dismissed for refusing to remove a talk on ‘toxic masculinity’ from his YouTube channel. More than a thousand boys signed a letter in support of him, citing diversity of thought. Benefactors proposed withholding substantial sums.

Last week saw yet another protest against Henderson’s reign. The school’s hunt master retired, with no replacement appointed. Beagles have been kept on school grounds since 1858, and this is one of the last remaining school packs in Britain. But the hounds have now been relocated to a local hunting society, prompting fears they might never return because ‘Trendy Hendy’ would abolish the Eton College Hunt completely. This was too much for the boys. They took to the streets in their hundreds, gathering in the school’s central courtyard. It was a ‘leggit’, a rare form of Etonian protest – and the largest in a decade. The school caved and promised that the hounds would return.

What also enrages Henderson’s internal critics is the autocratic style with which his progressivist changes are pursued. This is epitomised by the leadership’s base in a newly -constructed office block, mocked by staff as ‘the tower of power’. A centralised senior management team now rules from there in lieu of the traditional headmaster’s study. In this way, power is shifting from housemasters to an ‘Executive Leadership Team’. Both boys and masters are deeply wary of such changes; the boys’ resentment towards this corporate management style was a key factor in the beagles row.

Indeed, one Eton source suggests that Henderson’s modus operandi rankles as much as his fashionable goals. ‘The boys feel they are left as guardians not only of the institution’s characteristics but also its processes.’ Many masters fear the erosion of their autonomy, given Henderson’s changes to management posts. The Lower Master has, traditionally, overseen pastoral functions – a job that has long been merged with responsibilities for extracurricular and boarding. They have now been split between several deputies. Changes to Eton’s house system are feared to be in the offing, with boys being allocated houses, rather than choosing them. One former teacher complains, ‘there is demoralisation and a lack of trust aside from the ideology agenda’.

Henderson’s various changes don’t appear to have boosted Eton’s academic record. Its number of Oxbridge offers halved from 99 to 48 between 2014 and 2021. His supporters point to his expansion of social outreach initiatives, such as increasing scholarships. Others ask whether his dogmatic style risks endangering any good work he has done. A string of departures has occurred since his installation as head, by no means all of them in amicable circumstances. A leaked internal masters’ questionnaire shows mounting disquiet and ‘serious challenges’ relating to ‘disciplinary structures and the perceptions of masters’.

The Bishop of Lincoln even got involved in a dispute, allegedly over Henderson’s reforms, under a ‘Visitor of Eton’ rule that dates back to the school’s foundation and that allows prelates to mediate conflicts within it. This was thought to be the first time the rule has been initiated in 200 years. The school’s finances can’t haven’t been helped by the decision to hire the services of expensive City PR firm Brunswick. Their arrival was revealed shortly after staff reported receiving ‘thank you’ notes and £9 bottles of prosecco from Henderson in January; a rearguard effort to shore up his flagging support.

The Provost of Eton has always been one of the most consequential positions in British education. Eric Anderson, Waldegrave’s predecessor, was involved in educating three future prime ministers. Another, Henry Marten, taught constitutional history to Queen Elizabeth II. Her great-grandsons George and Louis might well study there too, just as Princes William and Harry did in the 1990s.

But now, the Provostship offers the chance for an Etonian ‘reset’. Already, the list of potential successors is growing. Leading the pack are two diplomats. Sir Geoffrey Adams, recently retired as our man in Cairo, is widely tipped as a ‘safe pair of hands’. His main rival is Sir Mark Lyall Grant, a former National Security Adviser, known as a Waldegrave loyalist. Sir Mark is an Eton fellow, as is Baroness Helena Morrissey, a City financier, regarded as a dark horse candidate. Johnson’s own ministerial interests advisor Lord Geidt might be an appointment too tempting to resist. Then there’s Henry Bellingham, a long-standing Conservative MP now in the House of Lords. Various Tory parliamentarians have sought opportunities to lobby the Prime Minister on his behalf, but such overt campaigning might not help. The view among the OEs at the top of government is that ‘Bellers is overreaching’.

There is precedent, too, for a former headmaster to return as Provost: Tony Little, Henderson’s predecessor, would represent a steady hand on the tiller. Another contender is Nicholas Coleridge – the great panjandrum of Condé Nast – though, as one interested party suggests, it might be ‘difficult to imagine his Hollywood smile beaming from the Provost’s Lodge’.

Boris Johnson once remarked that he wanted ‘thousands of schools like Eton’. But with his former stomping ground undergoing an uncharacteristic identity crisis, he might now conclude otherwise.

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