Eton’s decision to reject a non-selective intake at its new sixth-form colleges says it all, writes Tom Richmond
For the famous Eton College to declare that they wish to spread opportunity and drive up education standards in deprived towns and cities is, on the face of it, a positive development. For me, the question is how many potential winners and losers their philanthropy will create.
The early signs are not encouraging. The proposal from Eton to give around £1 million a year to three new state-funded selective sixth forms shows that, far from expanding opportunities, they are seeking to limit the beneficiaries of their plans to the tiny number of students ‘lucky’ enough to attend these new institutions.
If Eton genuinely wanted to help young people across the Midlands and the north, wouldn’t they take a different approach?
For example, if the ‘speaker events’ that Eton promises students at their new sixth forms are so impressive, why not make them available online to all the schools and colleges in Dudley, Middlesbrough and Oldham?
If Eton’s support for their students’ university application forms and subsequent interviews is so beneficial, why are they not publishing their wonderful advice for everyone to see?
Why is Eton only interested in inviting students to a ‘summer residential’ at their new sixth forms, when low- and middle-achievers in these same deprived areas are surely more in need?
Shouldn’t Eton be aiming to advise all the local schools and colleges about how to run Oxbridge-style tutorials, academic essay prizes and debate clubs, instead of keeping these initiatives to themselves?
Remember, Eton’s motto is ‘May Eton flourish’
The sad truth is that Eton has no interest in sharing these new ‘opportunities’ with anyone else, because our competitive university admissions system privileges those with access to the extracurricular activities and covert application tactics that selective schools such as Eton employ to great effect every year.
For instance, the activities listed above will make for a much grander UCAS personal statement, and in the fight for a handful of Oxbridge places, they could absolutely tip the balance.
The assertion from Star Academies – Eton’s partner in the new sixth forms – that these institutions will dramatically improve outcomes “in the wider communities” around them appears baseless.
Meanwhile, Eton’s claim that the small class sizes in these sixth forms “will ensure that they do not disrupt the existing pattern of local post-16 education” is based on either naivety or duplicity.
Even at the best of times, spreading a cohort of students more thinly across a larger number of providers can undermine the viability of existing institutions – hardly a recipe for improving standards.
The best evidence we have on selective schools shows that creaming off high-performing pupils from other institutions may lead to a slight increase in the grades of those attending the selective institutions, but the performance of other local institutions decreases.
As a result, the overall net effect is zero. Eton has not even acknowledged this, let alone proposed a remedy. In this context, their decision to reject the idea of a non-selective intake speaks volumes.
This is not a matter of turning away Eton’s philanthropy, but rather asking why, if Eton truly wants to become part of the collective efforts to ‘level up’ the country, they are trying so hard to ensure that only 240 students a year in a town of tens of thousands of people will benefit from their supposedly transformative support.
What’s more, those 240 students in each new sixth form could be getting approximately double the amount of money invested in their education relative to other young people in the same community.
This is a curious interpretation of ‘levelling up’, particularly when the government has yet to address the miserly funding settlement for 16-19 education in recent years.
It is a great shame that Eton’s new selective sixth forms appear to be as much about their own branding and PR as they are about spreading opportunities to less fortunate members of society.
Perhaps I should not be surprised. After all, Eton’s motto is ‘Floreat Etona’ ̶ “May Eton flourish”.