The sun never sets on Eton’s empire; Controversy over the school reflects the increasing polarisation between rich and poor

March 17, 2014 6:24 pm

The sun never sets on Eton’s empire

By Brian Groom

Controversy over the school reflects the increasing polarisation between rich and poor

In class-conscious Britain no word has such resonance as “Eton”. Old Etonian actor Dominic West, star of US television series The Wire, once said that being a former pupil of the world’s most famous fee-paying boys’ boarding school carried “a stigma that is slightly above ‘paedophile’ in the media in a gallery of infamy”.

Parents and pupils can be nervous of breathing the name of the school, which has educated generations of British and foreign aristocrats. A woman in Scotland who sent her son to Eton once told me euphemistically that he was being educated “at school in the Thames Valley”: the school, founded in 1440 by King Henry VI, is located west of London.

Michael Gove, UK education secretary, touched a nerve when, in the Weekend Financial Times, he described as “ridiculous” and “preposterous” the concentration of Old Etonians in David Cameron’s inner circle, saying such a bastion of privilege did not exist in any other rich country. His point was to stress his determination to transform state education so future prime ministers would have a wider choice. But some also saw it as a swipe at the leadership ambitions of Boris Johnson, the Etonian London mayor. Mr Cameron, who has four Eton-educated advisers, is the 19th UK prime minister to have gone to the school. Is Britain ready for a 20th?

The previous one was Sir Alec Douglas-Home in the early 1960s, satirised as an out-of-touch figure. In the intervening years, six out of seven premiers went to state school. “Public schools” such as Eton (so called originally because entry was not restricted on the basis of religion, occupation or home location) were lampooned in the egalitarian climate of the 1960s, notably in Lindsay Anderson’s film If . . . Even today, cartoonists depict deputy prime minister Nick Clegg – educated at another public school, Westminster – as Mr Cameron’s “fag” (a nod to the public school practice whereby younger pupils were required to act as personal servants to senior boys, which faded out in the 1970s and 1980s).

But something has changed. Public school alumni increasingly dominate professions such as acting. Pop music, once a working-class preserve, now has public school stars such as Florence Welch, Laura Marling and Marcus Mumford. It is a British aspect of the increasing polarisation between the wealthy and the rest.

Public schools have used their advantages to give pupils the skills to succeed in the modern economy, more successfully in many cases than state schools. Eton has high entry standards. A fifth of its pupils are poorer children supported through bursaries; it also co-sponsors a state sixth-form college in east London and is helping to create a state boarding school in Berkshire.

The trends are, nonetheless, disheartening for those who hoped to see greater equality of opportunity. Mr Gove may be a divisive figure, but his aim here is surely the right one.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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