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School CP - March 1999


Daily Telegraph, London, 5 March 1999

Is an easier life good for Eton?

Pupils are under pressure to organise their lives, as well as perform academically, finds old Etonian, James Hughes-Onslow

ETON has been in a state of shock since the death last week of a 15-year-old pupil, found hanged. The sadness has been all the more intense because Nicholas Taylor was a successful and popular boy who had previously shown no signs of suffering from stress or bullying; his death appears to have been the result of a thrill-seeking experiment that went wrong.

When the mourning is over and the inquests are complete, questions are likely to be raised about Eton's system of pastoral care, which is supposed to be second to none.

How could a boy of this age die in his room and not be found until after breakfast the next day? Similar accidents have happened to teenagers at home, critics may say, but not at a school where pupils should be supervised at all times. As a former pupil, and the father of a current pupil, I have some interest in the matter.

The practice at Eton of allowing a pupil his own room from day one is probably unique and it is central to the school's philosophy. Boys are encouraged to think independently, organise their own lives and take responsibility for themselves.

Having your own room at the age of 13 is not necessarily a luxurious soft option. It can be tough for a reticent new boy to make friends in a school with more than 1,250 pupils when he always has the opportunity of retiring to his own corner.

Some might say the hurly-burly of the dormitory, where you are forced to get on with your contemporaries, is an easier introduction to teenage life than a quiet haven. At Eton, even junior boys have to do much of their work unsupervised in their rooms. As they get older, the work load is increased, until eventually they do more studying alone than in the classroom.

Like pupils at university, boys at Eton are under pressure to organise their own lives, as well as to perform academically. There is an elaborate tutorial arrangement to keep an eye on their progress: each of the boys has a housemaster to watch his general well-being, a tutor to observe his academic work and every house has a dame, or matron, to supervise medical or personal matters.

A boy may have half a dozen different masters or beaks, according to the subjects he is learning. It is his responsibility to make his way to the appropriate division rooms at the right time, and to make time available for homework.

Beaks have a variety of commendations and reprovals at their disposal. "Show ups" are presented to the housemaster and tutor when a piece of written work is particularly impressive, while "rips" - where the paper is torn, rather contemptuously, at the top - are proffered for discussion and signature when the standard of work is poor.

During my time at Eton, in the Sixties, one beak used to favour "jammy tickets" as an awkward punishment. These were papers smeared on the back with jam to prevent the boy from hiding his shoddy piece of work from the housemaster.

Repeatedly bad behaviour or work usually results in the boy being put "on the Bill", which involves going to see the Head Master or, for junior boys, the Lower Master. In the bad old days, but no longer, a boy might have been "swiped" - beaten with a birch - for idleness.

Indeed, as recently as the Sixties, beatings with a cane were also carried out by senior boys, often without consulting their housemasters. My house captain once caned me after explaining he thought it would do me good. In one sense, he was right: the beating instantly conferred on me a heroic status among my contemporaries.

In my day, house captains, members of Pop - a group of about 20 senior prefects who wore grey trousers and coloured waistcoats - and other senior boys could fine offenders on a fairly arbitrary basis. No one knew where the money went. Today, there are still fines but the proceeds go to charity.

Giving boys so much responsibility for law and order sometimes produced chaotic results. But the advantage of the old regime was that odd behaviour seldom went unobserved; seniors and juniors were always keeping an eye on one another. House prefects and delegations from the library would drop in to your room on the flimsiest pretext, just to be officious. Housemasters and the Head Master could always be brought into play as a last resort, if things got out of hand.

All beating and "fagging" is now forbidden. Eton today is much more humane and boys are kept in order largely by means of their heavy workload. There is no longer a rule of fear. Senior boys seem to have a less intimidating swagger than they did when I was there, but this may be how it seems from my new perspective as a parent. Only the other day, my son admonished me for not knowing my place when I spoke to a member of Pop.

Boys still have their domestic chores to do, but they are not required to fetch a carnation for the Captain of Boats' buttonhole or to make his toast. They are more likely to run errands with piles of papers to the school office.

But the passing of the old, more frightening and uncomfortable order has left a vacuum. Although the modern housemaster is a much more caring fellow than his predecessor and, in the age of drugs, a more worldly one, his responsibilities are more arduous and the sanctions at his disposal are more limited.

Boys are increasingly co-opted to keep a watchful eye on their colleagues. But with fewer privileges and penalties available, can this system ever be as effective as the inflexible dynamics of terror and patronage? Eton is a more liberal place than it used to be, but perhaps in some ways more dangerous.

Copyright Telegraph Group Limited 1998.

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