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Last Updated: Monday, 17 October 2005, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Top of the class
By Alan Connor
BBC News

While Tory leadership hopeful David Cameron has been assailed by questions about drugs, there's an E word which has escaped the headlines: Eton. It wasn't always like this.

David Cameron perhaps didn't expect awkward questions about drugs to cloud his campaign to lead the Conservative Party. But he and his friends in what's become known as the "Notting Hill set" might have steeled themselves for being taken to task for their background, their privilege and schooling.

Alone among the hopefuls for the leadership of the Conservative party, David Cameron is an Old Etonian - something which, back in the day, would have been wholly unremarkable. In fact, it was more or less de rigueur if you had serious political ambitions: no fewer than 18 prime ministers attended The King's College Of Our Lady Of Eton Beside Windsor, not to mention foreign secretaries, home secretaries and chief secretaries to the Treasury.

But in the 1990 leadership contest Douglas Hurd - who was an Old Etonian MP for Witney, just like Mr Cameron - found numerous commentators remarking unfavourably on his schooling, particularly compared to grammar-school educated John Major, he of the vision of a "classless society".

Hugh Laurie
Francis Bacon
Adam Hart-Davis
George Orwell
Beau Brummell
Aldous Huxley
John Maynard Keynes
Ranulph Fiennes
Patrick Macnee
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Yet now, 15 years later, Mr Cameron's education goes largely unremarked upon - and certainly not as a headline issue. Public image can move much more quickly than the opinions of real people; one of the few to comment was a letter-writer to the Sunday Times this week who opined that hearing Mr Cameron defend his background "is to allow class warfare to go on unchecked". Likewise, there are many who never found anything remotely acceptable in the country being run by "OEs" (the customary abbreviation for Old Etonians).

But it was media folk who first changed the perception of Old Etonians: specifically, those sparky, spiky satirical sorts from the 1960s, most of whom had themselves learned how to use words as weapons while educated at England's public schools.

When Alec Douglas-Home (an OE) took over from Harold Macmillan (another OE), himself preceded by Anthony Eden (you guessed it), it was bad timing that television had recently taken in a fresh bunch of chaps impolite enough to talk about this and make gags.

"At the end of the Macmillan government, there was a change in the whole tone of politics," says Old Etonian Jonathan Aitken.

Cabinet makers

"There was a kind of knee-jerk attitude after that excitable Tory Conference, and OEs had a disadvantage going after certain jobs. They joked that the college gates had a sign: Eton, Cabinet Makers By Appointment To HM The Queen."

Old Etonians Douglas Hurd (left) and David Cameron
But it remained only "certain jobs". They say that if you want to know where the power is in Britain, you should look at where Old Etonians choose to get work; most recently, the shift from government in the 1950s to business in the 1980s. And, of course, the background of a CEO gets a lot less scrutiny than does that of an MP.

Add in Margaret Thatcher's drive for meritocracy, and you end up with the infamous complaint, often attributed to Macmillan, that the party in the 1980s had "more Estonians than Etonians".

By the late 1990s, schooling did not seem to be as hot a political potato. As the Evening Standard's David Sexton noted, we now have a Labour leader who was educated at "the Scottish Eton", Fettes College.

And the satirists had moved on, too. The 1960s figures had become a new elite, albeit one with pretensions to iconoclasm: the modern media set. And their successors were a bit embarrassed of political humour, discussing the 1970s in terms not of class struggle, but of which brands of sweets the comedians could remember.

Shifting views

"I don't think it was as much of an issue," says Lastminute's Brent Hoberman, adding that his alma mater was "becoming a bit more meritocratic, and I think that continues to shift people's views of it."

Come 1997, it was possible to have a background at Fettes; St John's; Chambers, and yet carry the image of a man of the people. And certainly in popular culture, being seen as a "toff" no longer brought automatic ridicule.

While Kula Shaker's Crispian Mills (Stowe) was lambasted for his background, Dido (aka Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong of Westminster) had a relatively easy ride - easier, perhaps, than the more recent experiences of the Tonbridge boys in Keane.

For a while, it looked as if bringing up social background had become a touch vulgar. But this is one reason why the debate about the Conservative leadership will prove fascinating. While David Davis has highlighted the humility of his roots, fellow contender Liam Fox told the party conference that where people were going mattered more than where they had come from.

Jonathan Aitken is stoical about how people will regard class issues in future. Of Eton stigma, he says "it comes and goes with tides of fashion". It went, but it may come again.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

i think the problem with the OE set is that it was never about the best man for the job, rather it was where you were educated. Now I'd suggest it is slightly different, but again it's seldom the best man for the job.. rather who your friends with.
Billy, ul

I went to Eton and am often slightly ashamed to say it. When people ask where I went to school I sometimes say "near Slough" and leave it at that! Often when people hear about where you went to school they judge you or begin to view you differently or maybe that's just my perception? As to whether its a help or a hindrance: That depends on the individual. Eton can give you knowledge but that doesn't automatically mean you are going to be wise. The greatest university is the university of life and in that respect i think we are all equal. Coming from an old Etonian that might sound quite presumptuous.
Alex Hodge, Devizes

Neither Francis Bacon the philosopher nor Francis Bacon the painter was, so far as I know, ever at Eton. Isn't there enough misinformation on this tired old subject out there already?
Alex, London, UK

I have employed 100's of young people over the past few years some from public school and some not - on balance I have found the state educated children more interesting, harder working, better balanced and more rounded human beings than those from private schools including Eton - I left Eton 20 years ago having had a happy and privileged education but have no plans to send my child there. There is nothing wrong with a selective system based on merit but the way in which Eton continues to make humiliating exceptions by admitting the less than gifted children of our Royal Family whilst clinging to its archaic traditions means that it remains an symbol of all that is putrid about this country - class, deference and sycophancy.
David Fawkes, London

I'm an Old Etonian who didn't enjoy his school years and spent many years trying to pretend I didn't go there. Eton is still conspicuous by its absence on my CV. But now I understand, as a parent, that my parents were only trying to send me to what, in their opinion, was the best school they could which surely every parent wants to do. And if its a good school then why shouldn't its pupils aspire to top jobs?
Alex, London

I'd like to add another possible reason for the supposed change of heart over private education. Harry Potter must have had some influence in reframing the image of private education, portraying the boarding school (which, as far as I know, is the predominant form of private education) as an elite place full of fantastic adventures. No wonder applications to private boarding schools have risen sharply! [I think it's fitting to discuss what private education can do for the wider society and culture - something that goes beyond a quotient of prime ministers - in the context of its stigma. Whilst boarding schools have much to offer their pupils - particularly in terms of facilities, quality of teaching and opportunities - I suspect that some Harry-Potters-in-waiting may find boarding schools less exciting, or nourishing for their imaginations, than they would like. I myself went to Eton (and am grateful for it), though I experienced the school to place a greater emphasis on conformity and competition than on creativity and collaboration. Given the current state of the world, lateral (and contextual) thinking and the ability to build and sustain good relationships would be worth nurturing in our schools. For example, I suspect we will need such skills to both prevent, and increasingly adapt to, the oil depletion and the negative consequences of human-induced climate change. I imagine that such skills are still not particularly well-nurtured across the field of private education.
FM, London, UK

I'm an old Etonian, and I never mention it if I can possibly avoid it. People prejudge you immediately; and almost universally in a negative way. It's a hassle I'd just rather sidestep.
rob, London

Why do people care where one has come from? It is just as absurd to say a man can't lead the Tory party because he is an Old Etonian. Inverse snobbery is just as bad as snobbery. Indeed it encourages snobbery by creating a felling of group insecurity and group persecution among old Public school boys. I truly hope that one day the old adage ¿whenever an Englishman opens his mouth he makes another Englishman hate him' will one day be anachronistic.
John, London

These days what matter most is what contributions one can make to better the society and what quality of life one can make for himself and his family. It's getting more important to have a good university degree than attending Eton.
Dr O. Ajibade, London, UK.

Where any of them went to school is irrelevant to their abilities today - I am a very different person to that in my schooldays & I expect they are too. They should hardly be judged now on the choices their parents made for them then. This is just inverted snobbery.
Lou, Leeds

The attitude that going to a good school merits disdain or ridicule is insulting to every child who has worked their socks off to achieve a scholarship or the A grades needed for Oxbridge. Do not mistake affluence for aptitude.
Kat, London, UK

What a pointless article! Where one of the leadership contenders went to school has little - if any - relevance to the leadership debate going on in the Tory party. People should be judged based upon their ideas going forward, not where they went to school!
Laurence Tailby, london, uk

It is obviously a slow news day! What matters is how they think and what they do, not where they came from.
Becky, Hampshire, UK

Shane MacGowan seemed to successfully avoid being caricatured as un upper class twit, despite being a Westminster old boy.
Billy Brown, London

Having just completed law school, I have seen perhaps the broadest range of backgrounds one is ever likely to see. Ranging from public schools such as Eton, Harrow and Winchester, to grammars and comprehensives, the one overriding characteristic was the high intelligence demonstrated throughout. And really I think this is all that matters when it comes to choosing political figures; who has the intellectual capacity and range of skills to take on the job, and this isn't determined by the school you went to.
David, Kent

Whether a person went to Eton or not is largely a reflection of the person's parents as much as their own ability. Surely it is wrong to judge a person unfavourably solely because their parents had money and tried to do the best for their children, in much the same way as it would be wrong to criticise someone for being born in a certain place, or having a certain accent, or other things that our parents bestow on their children that the children have little choice with regard to.
Colin, Harpenden

Isn't it a little odd that in 2005 we still worry about what school a person went to when deciding whether or not they are fit for a certain job? If Mr Cameron's suitability was being called into question for having attended a 'Comp'there would be cries of 'discrimination' all round. Is not our parents that make the majority of choices about where we are schooled, and as such, ought it not to be our own skills, personality and competence as adults that render us suitable or not for any job?
Sarah, Windsor, UK

As a whole I am not a great fan of the Conservatives or politicians really, but since when should ones past (regardless of any misdemeanours) or upbringing have any bearing on the now!? Show me a person who genuinely has no skeletons in their closet, and I say there is a person who has little life experience or something to hide!
Marcus Gage, London

Who you are not where you came from should count. However, Schools and universities such as Eton, Harrow, Oxford & Cambridge are virtually established 'qualifications' whose value has always out-paced that of the 'government degrees'. In large part to blame is the simple result structure for degrees leaving employers to sift through '000's of 2:1 & 2:2 scores. This leaves the door wide open to consideration of background. Were the gold standard a 'brand' of qualification/course with equal and detailed marking structure, then such a brand would become far more sought-after than 'from where?'
Zeno Vassiliades, London/UK

Despite my initial fears that this would not be the case, it is clear that most ordinary people in this country have moved on from outdated concerns with regard to a person's background. If we are living in, or at least moving towards a classless society, David Cameron should not be limited in political aspiration and opportunity just because he was lucky enough to have been born into a wealthy family and benefited from a good education. To suggest he should, or indeed that it should be a major issue, is inverted snobbery gone daft. So forget about his background please BBC, lets find out what he's about in terms of policies and plans for the future because he is the first real alternative this country has had in years.
Mark , Rugby

Three things matter: Can he do the job? Will he do the job? Does he want the job? We won't know the answers to 1 and 2 until the time comes but in my book David Cameron deserves a chance to prove all three. The Conservatives need to embrace all of the electorate and I think Cameron represents the future.
Chris, London, UK

It should not be an issue. If a person from a state school can be PM (Thatcher) then why cannot somebody from a public school. To say otherwise is just as prejudiced as a wealthy person looking down upon the publicly educated. The fact that it is an issue shows how unbalanced society of today is.
Richard, Birmingham

Surely the fact that Cameron's educational background has passed unremarked upon is in fact indicative of Britain moving closer towards a classless society - equality for all, even those who've been to Eton.
Amy, isle of man

In my opinion, the Tory Party will only win the next election if they have an OE as the Leader. What's wrong with that? Envious, greedy, lazy people who did not have the same opportunity.
Lorraine French-Skinner, London

Like the vast majority, I didn't get to choose which school I went to - indeed I didn't get the school I wanted. Makes it somewhat unfair for people to judge me by the school I was sent to. Even though it was a state school.
L Smith, Edinburgh, Scotland

I live in Eton and drive past the school every morning on my way to work. Every day I am forced to dodge floppy haired rich kids stepping out on the road, totally unaware of their surroundings and what's going on around them while everyday folk try and get on with real life. Sounds like the perfect place for the current generation of Britain's politicians to be educated, it gets them ready for a life in government!
G D, Eton, Greater Slough

To this day Britain is still run by a privileged elite - a cosy cartel between politicos and those that run big business. Luckily for this cabal most ordinary people aren't inclined to man the barricades because they have been allowed just enough crumbs from the top table to buy the latest iPod gadget. But that doesn't mean they haven't noticed that even under New Labour the gap between rich and poor has widened and that every single New Labour initiative is checked to ensure it is business "friendly". Even under a Labour government the gap between rich and poor has continued to widened.
Stephen, London, UK

It is absurd to bring up people's schooling like this. Most people, especially those who were at school 40 years ago, had little choice which school they attended; they went where they were sent. It is ridiculous to criticise something which was not their decision.
Adrian, Chester, UK

I went to Rugby school. I look back on those days with embarrassment and no fond memories. That world is a million miles away from the life I lead now. When I look back on it, all I think of is elitism, snobbery, arrogance and self-importance. It isn't something to be proud of, but then again, everyone I know isn't from that sort of background.
Anon, .

As an Old Etonian myself, I am totally delighted at the prospect of Cameron running the Tories. Eton is a superb institution and a vital link to our past. Tardy Book, Tap, The Bill, Pop - all wonderful, colourful elements of a school that helped Britain become the great country it is today. Good luck David, old son. Floreat Etona, Floreat Florebis!
Adam Pryce-Jones, London

Why does this matter. We need educated politicians with good business credentials and leadership skills. the politicians are far more spoilt than the school boys you are questioning 30 years after the choice was made for them.
J, London

I know many OE's and am also from Public School. I get a lot of ribbing at first from people and then slowly, they realise that in the end, you are a normal (!) person and that you can laugh at yourself quite happily.
Manuel, London, UK

I was educated at a Welsh Public school, my parents sent me there because we lived in one of the remotest parts of Wales, and if I had gone to the local comp I would never have met the variety of people that I did. The people you spend your time in school with definitely influence you and your education, but once you get into your career you just get on with it and the fact that I went to public school really hasn't had any impact on mine at all.
Gary Phillips, London

Eton was set up by Henry VIII to produce leaders, so it's hardly surprising that a good many have come from there. I agree that what matters is what you stand for and where you are going. I wish affected journalists would stop displaying their chips on their shoulders and with constant writings about public school education and the difference it might or might not make. P.S. I didn't go to Eton.
Simon Westmacott, Lodnon, UK

No problem with a party leader from Eton & Oxford- the better-educated they are the better for the country and Eton & Oxford happen to give world-class educations. What I have found distasteful about the Conservative leadership contest has been the willingness of several of the candidates to play the supposedly popular cloth-cap card & indulge in some nasty inverted snobbery. So David Cameron is now 'Dave' from North Kensington, not David from Notting Hill; Liam Fox dragged up a coalminer ancestor from somewhere; David Davis has rabbited on ad nauseam about his single-- parent/council-estate background. Not that Labour are any better. How many times has Ruth Kelly tried to tell us she would have preferred the local comp to Westminster & Oxford? What baloney it all is & who do they think they are kidding?
Ann Keith, Cambridge

Since when has an education at Eton been equated with knowledge which will be useful? Many of the luminaries you mention in your article were odd and none with possibly the exception of Orwell were original thinkers...and further many of them are dead!
Peter McNaughton, Montreal, Quebec

It seems that some journalists are completely vacuous, without the ability to weigh up the attributes of an individual: instead making a comment on the person's background, itself largely a reflection of the serious chip on their shoulder. Perhaps a course to learn to accept themselves and recognition of the value of their own attributes would be a constructive starting point. Only then would they be able to make a serious contribution to the evaluation of, say, a political candidate.
Brigid Monkhouse, London UK

I'm in my early 20s and I often find that where you come from - rather than which school you went to - is the major point of contention. I went to a (very good) comprehensive school, yet people often call me 'posh' because I'm from Sutton Coldfield!
Anon, living in London

When asked what school I attended, I used to reply "Eton College." The eyebrows went up as they remarked "Oh!" while mentally labelling me as the arrogant, stuck-up snob Etonians are all reputed to be. I now say that I went to a school near Slough in order to avoid the stereotype.
Richard E, Berks, UK

Certain people seem to think it perfectly reasonable to be prejudiced towards a minority as long as their minority status is based on their schooling, wealth or accent and not their sexual orientation, colour or creed. As an EE (Expelled Etonian) having been 'asked to leave' in 1977, whenever my education was thrown back at me I used to simply point out that I had been chucked out. This would then promote me from the bottom of the food chain to somewhere near the top. However, now that I am older and grumpier, I no longer see any need to apologise for my excellent education. My parents worked extremely hard to pay for it and I will always be grateful to them for that. Floreat Etona!
Adrian Walthoe, Brighton

I think it stands to reason that our leaders should be as well educated as possible. I'm a working class lad but I know a few OEs and I can see that they have had a fine education. What's more they are some of the most well balanced and generous hearted people I have ever met. I went to a comprehensive school but if I could I would have liked to go to Eton.
Jonny, Leicester, UK

Who ever is voted in to lead the party has to have an education whatever - it does not mean that they will be any better or worse as I am sure many people have experienced. Just because someone comes from a' working class' background and has not gone to Eton does not mean they will be more suitable for the job, in some it has been found that people are more harsh towards the ¿working class' coming from the ¿working class' - if we have to use the terms 'working class'
Gillian Denny, Newcastle

I cannot think how anyone can justify this "visiting the sins of the fathers onto the children": for the most part, children have very little say as to which school they go to. How and why they should have to defend this later in life is inexcusable. Far from being "classless", this country has a complex against those who are seen as more successful, and will use any means possible to bring people down. How sad.
D Battley, London

Where you go to school is a definite help. It should never be looked at as a negative factor, you don't choose where you go to school. Cameron's schooling got him to where he is without a doubt. Whatever the case he has made the most of his opportunities. That is what matters. He also seems to have a lot more humility and arrogance than David Davis.
John , London Uk.

My goodness. Why are we so obsessed with Class in the UK? If you work to pay your bills your are no better than anyone else. Surely a good brain and being moral is better than the way one speaks and where one was educated.
Tina While-Cooper, Wallheath, West Midlands

Outside of Shepherd's Bush this isn't considered news. Please try to put your social warrior tendencies aside and join the rest of us in the 21st century. We don't pay our considerable license fee to read garbage about where people went to school.
Paul Bestford, Henley

The stigmas associated with Eton are prejudicial rather than informed, the fact that the school has produced a great set of political alumni is a credit to the school in terms of the skills it imbues in its pupils. To discriminate against David Cameron on account of a school that has brought some of the greatest prime ministers this country has seen, would be pure stupidity. Floreat Etona
Edward, London

While I went to a "bog-standard comp", the friends I see every day went to other comps, grammar schools, private schools, and a couple even went to Eton. Our backgrounds don't seem to matter at all; they are all down-to-earth, decent, funny, generous people and good company. I would trust any one of them to run the country!
Anthony, London, UK

A good leader can come from Eton or Bethnal Green High, as can bankers, sportsmen or mass-murderers. The important thing is the man not his school.
John Larkin, Madrid, Spain

I don't want a Prime minister with a privileged education. I could never afford to send my children to a school such as Eton.
Louis Brady, London

David Cameron should certainly not feel embarrassed by his Etonian education. He should be grateful that his parents chose to spend their money on the best possible education that could be provided for him. Etonians of the current generation come from a cosmopolitan range of backgrounds. What unites them is that their parents sacrifice most of their income to provide their sons with a magnificent education. Etonians be proud!
Henry Jordan, London

Inverse snobbery is a terrible thing. There are a number of outstanding schools and universities in Britain producing men and women who are both well educated and well rounded. We should be celebrating the existence of institutions of academic excellence in our country, not sneering at them, especially when one considers the range of scholarships available to students from less wealthy backgrounds who wish to study at places like Eton.
Sam Wolff, Oxford

I am an OE and I find it incredible that the critics of this school make no mention of the quality of education which I found excellent (even in the war years when I was there.) Isn't this important, or is it just envy?
David Russell, Compiègne, 60200 France

Your schooling is relevant. Its part of who you are, it forms your early views and your social circles. However, if you can do the job, then it should be no barrier to how far you can go. Cameron should be judged by his electorate on how me has improved their lives, and nothing else.
Mark McGillion, Gloucester

While it's certainly possible to get ahead in life without a privileged background (I've managed it), if you've gone to Eton it kind of guarantees that you'll have an easy ride through life. The government (by which I mean the civil service), banks, and, of course, the dear old BBC, is by and large run by people who went to the likes of Eton and were educated in the likes of Oxford and Cambridge. Brainy, lucky, people from a working class background can get a break, but dear god it's so much easier if you've gone to public school.
Phil, Manchester

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