It is nearing the end of the summer term and Eton headmaster Tony Little has sent out an email to housemasters asking if there are any leavers who can come and talk to Country Life about their experiences at the school. As a random selection of four 17 and 18 years olds, they are an impressive bunch. Anthony is a Junior World Rowing champion going onto Harvard. Edward and Caleb are going up to Oxford, and Theo has already earned an entry in Wisden for getting six wickets in an over playing against a school in Australia. They are all aware of how lucky they have been, one of them describing it without embarrassment as the ‘best school in the world’. They all acknowledge, how-ever, that going to Eton carries a tag. ‘You have to change the pre-conception,’ says Theo. ‘It’s nice to dispel the stereo-type,’ admits Edward.

The word Eton is known throughout the world. Those who have never been there have their own idea of what it’s like. Those who have been pupils, such as David Cameron, live with the Old Etonian label. That it is like no other school is beyond doubt, but what is it that sets it apart and do those stereotypes correspond to reality?

The recent discovery of a 16th-century wall painting in the old Head Master’s Chambers was a reminder of the antiquity of the school as well as the ethos of progressive teaching. One of the Latin inscriptions that accompanies the depiction of two rows of boys sitting on wooden benches at the feet of their headmaster, translates as: ‘A good teacher is able to distinguish and foster the talents of individual boys and should not try to make them into automatons. ‘Anyone visiting Eton cannot fail to be impressed by the sense of the school’s 567-year history: the sweeping playing fields where the Duke of Wellington said the Battle of Waterloo was won;

the panelling where Shelley carved his name; and the boys’ houses clustered round the 15th-century chapel should all be listed as milestones in British educational history. But what really impresses parents being shown round for the first time is how modern it is. Many professional actors would be pleased to perform at the 400-seat Farrer Theatre; the Drawing School, with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls is light and airy. In the Design and Technology Centre, boys build everything from hovercraft to cars. In the music school, there is a professional-standard recording studio. Currently, there are 150 boys learning Mandarin, 50 learning Arabic and 70 learning Japanese. The Russian master is a former interpreter for the Soviet regime.

But in spite of all the facilities and equipment each boy has his own room and mandatory laptop which links every bedroom and classroom to teaching resources and the internet using a fibre-optic network it is the blend of ancient and modern that produces the potent cocktail of a first-class education.’There is the tradition of the place as an institution,’ explains Mr Little. ‘You can’t escape it. There’s very little conversation about 19 Prime Ministers. As a teenager, you’re aware of these things around you, and that does engender a kind of confidence. The unspokenness makes it more powerful.’

There is great value given to independence of thought and not being a clone. There are no Nuremberg-style rallies bringing the whole school together at one time. Each boy is encouraged to find his niche and there are more than 200 societies to choose from. Neither is the school obsessed with league tables. The headmaster claims that he has had two complaints from parents about league tables since he has been there, both that the school was too high up. Boys are encouraged to think and fend for themselves, but there is a strong support network of personal tutors, housemasters and form teachers always ready with support. Where else could boys invite the head of the British Army and a member of the Shadow Cabinet to speak? General Dannatt and Oliver Letwin went head to head on the same night in different venues, but they both had a good audience.

The school’s admissions tutor William Rees is adamant that it is neither an academic hothouse nor a school for the super rich. ‘There is a very active rumour industry. However, we are keen to preserve a healthy mix of pupils. One in five pupils is paying reduced fees of some sort, and we are targeting professional people with lower salaries who have a history of being involved in the independent sector and want to stay in it. In other words, our traditional market.’ There is also a fundraising drive to raise at least another £50 million to fund further scholarships and bursaries. Certainly, the fact that 25% of Etonians are the sons of Old Etonians seems to prove the school’s commitment to continuity. Some 40% of last year’s intake had a father, grandfather or uncle who had been at Eton. There is also a drive for new blood and the number of prep schools supplying pupils has recently gone up from 50 to 90 and 7% of pupils are from abroad.

There may have been a recent period when an Eton education was something to keep quiet about, but it appears that today’s rounded, confident pupils are letting actions speak louder than words.

Eton at a glance

  • Eton is situated 20 miles west of London, on the River Thames near Windsor (full address: Eton College, Windsor SL4 6DW). It was founded by Henry VI in 1440, and is an independent, fee-charging, boys-only school. Since 1444, there has been an amicabilis concordia between Eton, King’s College Cambridge, Winchester College and New College Oxford. Eton is part of the ‘Eton Group’: a collection of 12 independent schools consisting of Eton, Bryanston, Dulwich College, Highgate, King’s College School Wimbledon, King’s Canterbury, Marlborough College, St Paul’s, Sherborne, Ton-bridge, University College School Hampstead, and Westminster. The heads of the academic departments of these schools meet each year to discuss the curriculum
  • The fees from September 2007 are £26,490 per year for accommodation and tuition (although 20% of pupils receive bursaries). There are 1,300 boys at Eton, aged between 13 and 18, consisting of 1,200 Oppidans and 70 Collegers. School terms are called ‘halves’, and there are three per year: the Michaelmas Half (September to December), the Lent Half (January to March), and the Summer Half (April to June or July).
  • Every boy is a boarder in a house of about 50. Each house is presided over by a House Master, who looks after the academic and personal welfare of the boys. The Master is assisted by a ‘Dame’, who concentrates on the boys’ health. Third in command is the House Captain, who ensures good behaviour, and, fourthly, there is the Captain of Games, who encourages all boys to become involved in sports. Each student is also assigned an academic Tutor.
  • Eton also runs summer schools for non-pupils: the universities summer school offers 120 sixth-formers lessons in get-ting into university, as well as a chance to ask Oxbridge dons how best to apply there. The Brent-Eton summer school is for up to 50 boys and girls, and encourages the pre-A-Level students to continue with their studies, and set up a website to chronicle their progress. Choral Choruses provides 300 promising singers from across the UK with a chance to improve; the rowing instruc-tional courses offer the same skills in rowing, to 240 pupils. Finally, English language and cultural courses are offered for about 140 Japanese and the same number of Chinese students.