At Eton College – the boarding school in the British countryside that has educated princes and 20 prime ministers – students wear tailcoats and white ties to class. But some wore vests with the Black History Month symbol underneath.
The students still sleep in ivy-covered stone dormitory buildings, some dating back to the 18th century. Some of them have rainbow pride flags fluttering from them.
It is an all-boys school, but there is also a feminist society and a celebration of International Women’s Day.
“They’re on the right track,” said Alasdair Campbell, a 19-year-old recent graduate.
“Terrible,” said Felix Kirkby, 21, another of its alumni. “It destroys its reputation.”
Eton, which was founded in 1440 and covers grades seven to 12, has long been a symbol of British tradition and continuity, with its campus in the shadow of Windsor Castle, its elitist quirks and its expensive tuition.
But in Britain, which is more racially diverse, more open to questions of gender identity and economic inequality, and increasingly rejecting the aristocratic legacy of a white-dominated empire, Eton is also changing. Many students and alumni welcomed its development. Some have not. Others argue that Eton needs an even deeper overhaul to remain relevant in today’s Britain.
Navigating the tightrope between past and present is Simon Henderson, who eight years ago became, at 39, the youngest headmaster in the school’s history.
Mr Henderson, an Oxford graduate who taught history at Eton, has widened access to scholarships – tuition is about 45,000 pounds, or $57,000, a year – and just last month, he announced an expansion of his previous initiative to partner with state schools in poorer areas areas of the north.
He promoted discussions about masculinity, sexism and gender identity; celebrated Black and LGBTQ+ history months; and appointed a “director of inclusive education” to address issues around race and sexuality. He fired a professor who refused to remove a video he posted on YouTube in which he argued that patriarchy is partly caused by women’s choices because it benefits them.
Some of those moves earned Mr. Henderson a nickname like “Trendy Hendy,” and criticism as a “woke” activist, while his dismissal of the professor ignited a debate about free speech on campus.
Mr Henderson sees himself as a cautious moderniser, trying both to uphold Eton’s heritage and promote change.
“Eton is not immune to the wider society in which we sit,” said Mr Henderson, wearing the school’s trademark white bow tie and cufflinks with its coat of arms, in a recent interview in his office.
“There are moments in the path of an institution where it has to step forward a little more firmly,” he said. “And this is one of those moments.”
He dismissed accusations that he wanted to dismantle the school’s traditions as a “myth”, but admitted, “I know some people may feel the pace of change has been fast.”
Henry VI founded Eton as a school for the children of the poor, but over time it became a bastion for the offspring of Britain’s rich and powerful, almost by birth.
The Prince of Wales and his brother, Prince Harry, are alumni. George Orwell was a graduate, as was John Maynard Keynes; Percy Bysshe Shelley; and the adventurer Bear Grylls. The ex-prime minister Boris Johnson also graduated from Eton; at the age of 16, he wrote in the school magazine that all parents should send a son to Eton because it will fill him with “the most important thing, a sense of his own importance.”
Political leaders who followed an Eton College-Oxford University pipeline into parliament have been accused of carrying into politics the entitlement and cold-bloodedness they learned there, and of being out of touch with Britain’s reality.
As recently as 2011, an Eton entrance exam asked prospective students to imagine they were prime minister and write a speech arguing that employing the army against violent protesters, and killing many of them, was “both necessary and moral.”
In recent years, Eton has accepted more sons of international money – fewer viscounts and more investment bankers – as well as more children from less wealthy families, with the number of scholarships increasing every year. However, at least 75 percent of the students still pay the full fee.
The school has also become more academically selective and demanding, but in a more competitive educational environment, fewer Eton students are accepted to Oxford or Cambridge than in years past. Mr Henderson said some are now getting into Ivy League colleges in the US instead.
Mr. Campbell, the recent graduate, said he supports Mr. Henderson’s efforts. He said that, for him, the conferences on issues of race, gender and privilege were eye-opening. It was time for the school’s elitist appeal to go away, he said.
“The nearer Eton is to a normal school in terms of tradition, the better light it will have in the eyes of the public,” said Mr Campbell..
However, even small, temporary decisions created controversy.
Since 1857, Eton kept a herd of beagles to use in hunting hares. But in 2004, hare hunting became illegal in the UK. The school kept the sport alive on campus by having the students train the beagles to follow an artificial animal scent, and then enter. competitions.
Last spring, the custodian for the backpack retired and the school did not find an immediate replacement. The dogs were temporarily moved from the campus.
Hundreds of boys protested on campus, inspiring extensive coverage in the British press. The British conservative newspaper The Telegraph wrote that parents feared that Eton’s hunting society was “being quietly hacked through the back door by Eton’s ‘woke’ leadership.” Some parents, the newspaper wrote, even offered to “keep the package together on their personal estates.”
Mr Kirkby, the 21-year-old former student and child of scholars who went to Eton on scholarship, said the school should retain its quirky, aristocratic activities, such as the requirement to wear tailcoats and some of its sports.
“It’s a powerful symbol of acceptance,” he said as he sat at a cafe in Oxford, where he now studies. “For someone who grew up in a disadvantaged background, to be able to hunt and shoot and fish.”
In his view, the approach Mr Henderson is taking suggests opposition to the very idea of Eton as an elite private school.
“Hendy,” he added, “is preparing the ground for the destruction of the school.”
In 2020, the school erupted when Mr. Henderson fired Will Knowland, the teacher who posted the patriarchy video.
Some students defended the teacher, arguing that his firing would damage Eton’s reputation as an institution where debate can be held freely. A a letter requesting his reinstatement collected thousands of signatures online; the students wrote that “the school seeks to protect its new image as politically progressive at the expense of one of its own.”
The school said it did not intend to stop a debate but that the dismissal was a disciplinary matter because the teacher refused to take down the video after he was asked. Mr Knowland did not respond to requests for an interview but told British newspapers that free speech was critical to education.
Although many students said they appreciated the new sensibility Mr. Henderson brought to the school, some said he did not go far enough, expressing hope that the school would expand scholarships, as well as hire more non-white teachers, to accept girls, and throw away the frock altogether.
But Mr Henderson said there were “no plans” to take in girls or remove the frocks. And the beagles are back on campus. Some of Eton’s traditions, he said, are a “physical, tangible link to our past” and are “very, very valuable”..”
At the end of last month at Eton, new students were in town trying on cashmere uniform overcoats and buying colour-coded socks for croquet, fencing or squash.
Caius Folkerts, 12, enthusiastically made his first fitting of an Eton tailcoat.
“They don’t walk around in denim,” said his mother, Maie Folkerts, as she photographed her son in a tailcoat. “And hopefully they never will.”