A visitor to the school is struck by Eton’s combination of beauty and history that makes it seem, though it’s in the middle of a small town, a world apart. The physical setting complements other kinds of apartness the school fosters. Not just the uniform of white tie and black tailcoat, vest and pin-striped trousers, but a collection of customs and slang whose mastery confers membership in the brotherhood. Teachers are “beaks,” the three school terms are called “halves,” “wet bobs” are rowers, “tugs” are the 70 especially bright King’s Scholars, who live together in a house called “College” on reduced fees, as stipulated by the school’s founder, Henry VI.
Of course this breeds insularity and exclusivity. Classes are small, teaching is often passionate, the boys work hard — 97 out of a class of 263 were offered places at Oxford or Cambridge last year, and 110 are studying Chinese. By custom, to show the respect they want the boys to give it, teachers must mark written work within 24 hours. They’re given a lot of latitude on how to teach and are well paid — two- thirds earn over $72,000, plus housing — but they’re also expected to coach athletic teams and help with extracurricular activities. Percy Harrison, head of science, says: “I see my family at breakfast and at dinner. I’m often working to 10 or 11 at night; and so is everyone.
Because it’s a seven-day-a-week boarding school, the high expectations extend beyond the classroom. Some students act in plays in a 400-seat theater which are quite serious productions. Other students compose music that is performed by the school’s symphony orchestra, in a hall that is attached to a professional-quality recording studio. One can try his hand at things and see approximately what it would be like in real life, which is quite amazing.
One parent says what she likes best about Eton is that her son is “on his own, but not alone.” There are no enforced study periods. Boys are expected to manage their own busy lives. They live in houses with about 50 others each with his own bedroom, overseen by a senior teacher in residence, perhaps with his own family; this housemaster, whose standard term is 13 years, keeps a close eye on his charges. The reports he writes to a boy’s parents are often gems of shrewd character dissection. The ethos is intimate, reinforced by a compulsory daily meeting of all teachers, who assemble in their gowns to hear a few announcements and then rapidly transact business about individual boys. “You really get to know your teachers and can be very matey with them,” says Tom, the fourth-year student. “On a Saturday evening you can come to a teacher’s house, have a glass of wine and a chat”. Tony Little, the headmaster, says, “There’s a net there trying to influence boys to make the right decisions, but it’s not intrusive. The whole thing has to be built around human relations and communication; you protect that and build outward.”
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