Eton College asked 13-year-old boys competing for a scholarship to pretend to be Prime Minister and justify the army shooting dead 25 protesters as a "necessary and moral" decision, it has emerged.
The public school set the question as part of an exam to win one of 14 King's Scholarships, which is worth one tenth of Eton's £10,689 termly fees.
Eton College, which charges more than £30,000 a year in fees
The question, which was posed to students in 2011, tells the teenagers: "The government has deployed the Army to curb the protests. After two days the protests have been stopped but 25 protesters have been killed by the Army.
"You are the Prime Minister. Write the script for a speech to be broadcast to the nation in which you explain why employing the Army against violent protesters was the only option available to you and one which was both necessary and moral."
The question posed to the 13-year-olds in the scholarship exam
The question was part of three on a topic concerning "cruelty and clemency, and whether it is better to be loved than feared". Candidates were also asked to dissect and translate a made-up language, as well as discuss disrespectful attitudes towards teachers.
Tony Little, headmaster of Eton College, emailed HuffPost UK and said the school does not favour "any particular political viewpoint".
"The question starts with that well-known section from Machiavelli’s The Prince about whether it is better to be feared than loved as a ruler, and then asks candidates to imagine a situation where law and order is breaking down, oil crisis, troops on the streets have killed protestors."
Tony Little, Eton's headmaster, issued an explanation after a negative public reaction
Little says the question has been taken out of context, as the candidates were also asked to say what was unappealing about Machiavelli's ideas.
"We are looking for candidates who can see both sides of an idea an express them clearly – both directly and through more imaginative writing," he added. "High ability candidates at this level are often asked to put themselves in other people’s shoes. In that regard this is no different from a GCSE English question which might ask “Imagine you are Lady Macbeth, write a diary entry to express your feelings on receiving your husband’s letter.
"A similar question on the previous year’s paper is about a community without any government."
Many took to Twitter on Thursday night to express incredulity at the question:
The college, which Prince Harry and Prince William attended, charges more than £30,000 a year in fees. The exam paper makes up just one part of the scholarship exam, and the full set can be viewed here.