Eton Mess? In Defence of Britain's Most Maligned School

03/10/2012 18:17 BST | Updated 03/10/2012 18:17 BST

To misappropriate the quote often attributed to the Duke of Wellington (OE 1784), Ed Miliband's barnstorming speech at the Labour party conference was designed in large part to suggest that the 2015 election will be won or lost according to whether or not its political participants had ever set foot on the playing fields of Eton.

Wellington's famous quote, in which he supposedly linked British success at Waterloo to the lessons learned at Windsor's most famous boys school, is, like so many an assumption about Eton, not quite what it seems. For starters, it is unlikely that the great Commander-In-Chief ever said anything of the sort. Wellington held no fondness for the school that he attended - he had an unhappy time there - and when he found himself a reluctant pupil in the late 18th Century, it didn't have any playing fields. However, this quote came to be embraced by the Establishment, who have been as complicit in the propagation of Eton myths as those on the left who despise what they believe the school to represent.

Of the 2,500 independent schools in the UK currently educating an estimated 615,000 children, Eton is the most famous, and the one that apparently triggers a set of unique and differing associations across all sectors of society.

It is never suggested that people's lips curl in disgust at the mention of an Old Merchant Taylors boy; we never read about a cabal of Old Salopians controlling things, and I don't see Harriet Harman's name being perpetually prefixed with the words 'Old Paulina', yet certain sections of the political elite and commentariat would have us believe that to be an Old Etonian is a big issue and a defining characteristic.

I believe that much of this is a nonsensical construct, as no right-minded individual would make a character judgment - nor a decision on how they might cast their vote - upon whether or not a person had been signed-up, when pre-adolescent, to attend a particular academic establishment.

There's no denying that Eton is, in a number of senses, 'elitist'.

Academically, its entrance examinations are rigorous. Eton is also extremely expensive (though on a par with many leading boarding schools), but this is only an issue for those who have to pay, but more on that later... Society's preoccupation with Old Etonians is not predicated upon the undeniable academic qualities of their school, nor really on the cost of attendance, rather it is a prejudice based largely upon perceived exclusion: the notion that one, small group of people is part of a fantastic party to which unwelcome others are not invited.

It is such a corrosive mindset. And perversely, this all seems puzzling to many Old Etonians, as they cannot reconcile the perception (in some quarters) of Eton with the realities of the school that they knew; and it's a risky strategy for anyone in the public eye to stand-up for the place.

I can only hypothesise as to why Eton engenders such emotions, but I can write with confidence about my own experiences at the place in the Eighties. I found a modern school in old-fashioned surroundings, where a significant proportion of the pupils were on scholarships or had subsidised fees, and, in a similar way that Ed Miliband derived personal fulfilment from the variety of pupils at his school, so too did I from the mixed group of British and foreign students at my own. The educational standard was high, the sporting aspects of the school second-to-none, but I never encountered snobbery of any kind - we all had non-Etonian friends in Windsor. If anything, antipathy came from other private-school pupils, whom I suspect are not the people that Ed is trying to galvanise.

Eton offers unique opportunities, this cannot be denied, but to rail against all pupils - current or former - is unjust to those who worked to get their scholarships or whose parents have slaved to put them there. There are certainly rich pupils whose parents did not feel the pinch when it came to paying the fees, but this is not unique to Eton, and surely is replicated across all of England's independent schools. Of the estimated one third of all British MPs who were educated at fee-paying schools, some will come from prosperous backgrounds, others will not.

All in all, it has little to do with the reality of what and how Eton teaches and who attends, and everything with making the school emblematic of wider social divisions within the country, which can be simplified and turned into capital by politicians. The Eton conjured-up by certain commentators is a school from a bygone age, and attacks on it about as logical as a foreign country basing its relationship with the UK on Downton Abbey.

I would never judge another person on whether or not they had attended a particular school, just as much as I would hope that people would not pigeon-hole me for having attended Eton.