The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

A School's History Is it's Hearbeat

Eton College has been educating teenage boys for 570 years. At the moment there are 1,300 boys aged
13-18 enrolled at the school.

Over such a long period of time there have been many styles and approaches to education witnessed at Eton.
At its worst, some 200 years ago, a brutish orthodoxy reigned but even in those times when the fearsome
Dr Keate was Head Master there was a recognition that being a teenage male was a particular, distinct and
different time of one's life. In the modern day, there are two basic principles that underline the philosophy of
the school: that boys learn at least as much outside a classroom as in it and that they learn at least as much
from each other as from any adult. It is the genius of a good school to make these things happen positively
and well.

Eton is helped in this pursuit by the structure of the school, more a happy historical accident than a design.
Boys benefit from the sheer scale of a fully residential institution of over 1,000 teenagers: the range of
academic subjects, the very considerable choice of activities and sports, the facilities and so on. But this is
complemented by the House system. Eton is divided into 25 boarding houses. With the exception of College
(the traditional home of the 70 King's Scholars) each of these boarding houses holds around 50 boys. Each
boy lives in his particular house for 5 years together with his House Master and family. Any House Master
worth his salt will so arrange the living environment that by the time a boy has reached the age of 18 he is
taking a substantial part of the responsibility for leading the house upon himself. Tribal loyalties are strong:
boys often feel far more passion for their House than they do for the rather larger idea of the school. Eton
still lays great store by House competition. To win the inter-house senior football competition, over twentyfour
rivals, feels a significant achievement. In this way, Eton has, I believe, a healthy and productive balance
between small focussed pastoral units with all the opportunity of a large institution.

Whatever system a school has in place, however, it is the quality of relationships that count. The role of
House Master is absolutely central to the achievement and happiness of the boys. He (in all but one case it is
a he) is a role model and guide; always a practising and active classroom teacher, but an all-round schoolmaster
as well, coaching games, directing plays - in many ways living the life of the boy. Typically, a teacher
will be on the staff of Eton for about 10 years before he is considered to take on a boarding house which he
will then run for 13 years. House mastering is seen as the apogee of a career at Eton. It is a post you would
aspire to. It is absolutely not a temporary post as warden, but a profound commitment. Aiding the House
Master in each house is the splendidly entitled "Dame". Although this is an old-fashioned piece of terminology,
the post is modern and real. The Dame is more than a matron (although she will tend to the domestic
well-being of the boys and the fabric of the House) but she is an active junior partner in the running of the
House. Aided by a deputy and two assistants and working with the resident domestic team, there are usually
some 10 or so adults connected with each House.

While all teaching, games and other activities operate on a school-wide basis, the House is a central feature
of the boy's life. It is where the boy first gains the security of a home base away from home, where he forms
his first friendships, where he learns to deal with the people he does not particularly like; it gives him the
confidence to expand his relationships in a broader field.

Separate from the House structure each boy also has a personal tutor. Eton is fortunate in housing all its 160
teachers, all of whom live within walking distance. So the tradition maintains that when a teacher sees a boy for
an evening tutorial, it always takes place in the teacher's home. Thus boys have another significant adult contact
which grows and develops over time. We spend a great deal of time building relationships and trusts between
adults and boys thus, we hope, creating the environment in which boys treat each other in a similar way.

When it comes to an awareness of spiritual life, as a Christian foundation, we have regular Christian observance.
We also, however, have faith tutors for our Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist boys. Counter-cultural
though it can seem, I maintain a belief in compulsory Chapel attendance for all boys. During the short
weekday morning services (around 15 minutes) I expect those of all faiths and none to attend. The community
experience is powerful and the opportunity to spend a quiet time or reflection at the beginning of a busy
day helps establish a rhythm which many boys value later in their lives. A spiritual life is realised in many
ways, through exposure to great art, appreciating music, participating in theatre, through discussion, through
listening to rafts of distinguished speakers. Through it all we try to give boys a firm framework for development
so they can work out for themselves a clear sense of right and wrong. More than anything, it pleases
me when observers describe boys here as reflective and showing a degree of self-awareness. When those
qualities are added to the self-confidence which can be generated from the positive drive of a busy, demanding
place, then one can entertain the hope these young men will stand up for themselves and for a purpose
higher than themselves and, in so doing, be of real value to society.

Tony Little, Headmaster, Eton College in Windsor
About Tony Little