Twenty or so boys dressed in white tie and tails are being taught by Liam Maxwell on a recent Friday at Eton College, the exclusive boys' school 35 km west of London. For centuries Eton founded in 1440 has been synonymous with privilege, the place where Britain's élite is given its polish and an air of entitlement. But this class doesn't feel like a hothouse for languid aristocrats. The boys are not declaiming Latin but staring into computer screens, trying to master the database program Microsoft Access. Though a student once told Maxwell that typing was something he could leave to his daddy's secretary, the school insists that all first-year students learn to type, so that they can use their mandatory laptops on the fiber-optic network that links every classroom and bedroom to teaching resources and the Internet. Some accents reveal the distinctive bray of the upper crust, but most are generic middle class. The questions are earnest and Maxwell is able to illustrate his answers on a giant whiteboard onto which an image from his computer is projected (most classrooms have the same high-tech setup). The project the boys are working on would probably not be the first choice at one of Britain's state schools their databases are portfolios of fictional shares they manage during the term to see who can make the most money. But Maxwell, who arrived two years ago after running the IT department of a large recruiting firm, has no patience for the self-pleased. "I tell the boys that 30% of them are going to work for a Chinese or Indian company," he says. "They're going to be judged on what they are and can do, not where they came from. Being an Old Etonian won't be that relevant."
But being a New Etonian could very well turn out to be. For years, many of modern Britain's proud meritocrats have thought of the school as a four-letter word, typifying everything that was wrong about a class-bound society, a generator of snobs who didn't deserve yet another benefit from a nation that had long awarded life's glittering prizes to those who were lucky enough to have been born to land, money, privilege or all three. But Eton is having a makeover. It's trying to marry the lessons about educating adolescent boys acquired over 566 years to the spirit of a less hierarchical, more competitive, more globalized Britain, and the effort is bearing fruit. If it plays its cards right especially if it can open its doors not just to the very bright sons of the wealthy but to the brightest boys there are, anywhere Eton has a decent shot at becoming the nursery for a 21st century (male) élite. And it won't be just a British élite, either.
In much of Britain today, being an Etonian is not something you really want to brag about. The well of resentment is too deep. Rory, a student in his fourth year (students' last names are being withheld at the school's request), still regrets answering honestly on a transatlantic flight when his seatmate asked where he went to school. "For six hours he kept making snide remarks," he says. Douglas Hurd, Margaret Thatcher's Foreign Secretary, wrote in his memoir that his family believed "that if I had not gone to Eton I would have become Prime Minister in 1990." (That was the year that the Conservative Party opted instead for John Major, who attended Rutlish Grammar School in south London.) It's not because Eton lacks famous alumni. Its graduates include 19 British Prime Ministers, the founder of modern chemistry Robert Boyle, the Duke of Wellington (the one who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo), economist John Maynard Keynes, writers Percy Bysshe Shelley and George Orwell, Soviet spy Guy Burgess, actor Hugh Laurie, Princes William and Harry, the fictional James Bond, even a Roman Catholic saint as well as generations of less illustrious worthies. The problem is that in a more meritocratic age, Eton became synonymous with "English aristocrat." Its well-worn image is as a finishing school for not-necessarily-deserving boys whose parents can afford $44,000 in fees each year (Harvard costs nearly the same) to ensure they develop the easy confidence, posh accent and useful contacts that will guarantee access to the top of British society.
At least among many metropolitan commentators, that fed an anti–private school, anti-Eton mood for years. A lot of smart money during the Tory leadership contest in 2005 discounted 39-year-old David Cameron simply because he was an Old Etonian. He had to fight the image: "It's not where you come from but where you are going that counts," he said, as if he had had to escape a deprived childhood. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, a former ship's steward, targeted Cameron as part of an "Eton mafia." Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Cameron's likely opponent at the next election, also dismissed him as just "an Old Etonian." Any school for teenagers that politicians can use to curse their foes decades later has powerful magic indeed.