Christopher Bellaigue in The Economist:
One of Simon Henderson’s first decisions after taking over last summer as headmaster of Eton College was to move his office out of the labyrinthine, late-medieval centre of the school and into a corporate bunker that has been appended (“insensitively”, as an architectural historian might say) to a Victorian teaching block. Here, in classless, optimistic tones, Henderson lays out a vision of a formerly Olympian institution becoming a mirror of modern society, diversifying its intake so that anyone “from a poor boy at a primary school in the north of England to one from a great fee-paying prep school in the south” can aspire to be educated there (so long as he’s a he, of course), joyfully sharing expertise, teachers and facilities with the state sector – in short, striving “to be relevant and to contribute”. His aspiration that Eton should become an agent of social change is not one that many of his 70 predecessors in the job over the past six centuries would have shared; and it is somehow no surprise to hear that he has incurred the displeasure of some of the more traditionally minded boys by high-fiving them. What had happened, I wondered as I left the bunker, to the Eton I knew when I was a pupil in the late 1980s – a school so grand it didn’t care what anyone thought of it, a four-letter word for the Left, a source of pride for the Right, and a British brand to rival Marmite and King Arthur?
To judge from appearances in this historic little town across the Thames from Windsor Castle, which many tourists think is worth a visit between the Round Tower and Legoland, the answer is actually not a lot. Aside from the fact that there are more brown, black and Asian faces around, the boys go about in their undertakers’ uniforms of tailcoats and starched collars, as they seem to have done for centuries, learning in the old schoolrooms and depleting testosterone on the old playing fields before being locked up for the night in houses they share with 50 of their peers (each boy has his own room). As the absence of girls demonstrates, Eton considers itself exempt from the modern belief in the integration of the sexes that so many independent schools now espouse. And it remains a boarding school – a form of education which is in decline, and which some people consider a mild form of child abuse. Add to all this the statue of Henry VI, who founded the school in 1440, amid the uneven cobbles of School Yard, and the masters cycling in their gowns to their mid-morning meeting, resembling nothing so much as a synod of ravens, and you get the opposite impression to that conveyed by Henderson: one of solidity, immobility – anything but dynamism.
To the question, “which is the ‘real’ Eton?” – the laboratory for progressive ideas about social inclusion, or an annexe to Britain’s heritage industry – the answer is of course “both”.