The Eton head who's `on our side'

17th July 2015 at 01:00
Tony Little's humane book is a defence of liberal education

Few people are neutral about Eton College. It is either the apogee of elitism and privilege or the last bastion of standards.

As someone for whom a career in the state sector was the only possible choice, and with a trace of the student class warrior still in my blood, I was looking forward to disliking this book by Tony Little, Head Master of Eton since 2002. Even the title put me off: An intelligent person's guide to education. Who is the intelligent person? The writer? The reader? Both?

Little provides a reading list for "bright" 16-year-olds; presumably no other sort go to his school. He tells us the "well-educated, ambitious teenage polymath should read them all". Out of the list of 42 books, I have read eight. I was beginning to think I was not sufficiently intelligent to be allowed near this book.

So it was with considerable surprise that I found myself warming to his views. Little, pictured above, has a lucid, uncluttered prose style that seduces you like a worn leather sofa. He expresses himself with disarming reasonableness and a total absence of posturing or pretence. His humanity seeps through every page. This is a reflective book, not a revolutionary one.

The consequence is that some pronouncements are just too bland. Families should not abrogate responsibility for education to the school. Young people need to be adaptable and independent-minded, as well as possessing skills and knowledge. Nothing earth-shattering so far.

Shared values

Then I started to feel he was "on our side". The government's interference with teacher training is "vandalism". Finland rules because of the esteem of its teachers. The English Baccalaureate should include the arts. Abolish GCSE exams. The government has relied too much on "top-down control and measurement by results". Trust the teacher. At this rate, you could put him on stage at the NUT conference.

Little's understanding of the adolescent mind is superb. I know of many parents who would value his advice on navigating these turbulent years, and many teachers who could learn from his wise, balanced approach to discipline.

The real joy of this book is its vision of education. Academic attainment is never enough. Schools must be about developing fully rounded human beings. Nourishing individuality is vital, but so too is learning to be "part of the tribe".

This is an unashamed defence of the British tradition of holistic, liberal education, and it would be easy to dismiss it as the luxury of a school which Little admits has the advantages of "time, resources and tradition". Instead, I welcome his reminder of how far governments have dragged schools from their true purpose. I could happily spend an evening drinking claret with this man whose values I find myself unexpectedly sharing.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge Community College, in Devon

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