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A Stellar Education: Eton Follows The North Star

oldham and eton

Eton Of The North

Eton College, that bastion of British entitlement and tradition, has announced that it will be opening a ‘transformative’ new college in the gritty northern and, crucially, culturally diverse town of Oldham.

This unprecedented initiative raises questions about the potential for ‘cross-cultural collaboration‘, the motivations behind such endeavours, and the implications. Just for good measure, in case you thought they weren’t serious and lacked confidence, the partnership has added two other new Stars, Dudley and Middlesborough.

A Tale of Two Brands

It was the best of schools, it was the worst of educational ‘cold spots’.…… a cursory look of the word clouds formed from the general public’s perception of the Eton College and Oldham brands reveals that there is a bit of a mismatch. It’s a collision of privilege and connections with diversity and challenges. A round peg in a square hole? Or the best of both worlds? The creation of the ‘Eton of the North’ has raised a lot of questions about the cultural fit.

But that’s the challenge, right? This project is not an accident, but a carefully thought-through strategy.

The Strategic Masterstroke

Eton has a long tradition in strategy, as epitomised by Wellington’s assertion that victory in The Battle of Waterloo was plotted on its playing fields. In this latest bold, and some might say incongruous, move, which reverberates with both collaboration and contrasts, Eton has cleverly decided not to embark on the ambitious journey alone but to tap into local knowledge and expertise through a strategic ‘educational partnership’ with Star Academies; together they are aiming to establish a new ‘selective’ school in the old town – Eton Star Oldham.

More A Tale of Two Educational Brands

This initiative is a fascinating coming together of two scholastic brands with vastly different educational philosophies and backgrounds: Eton College, with a reputation steeped in centuries-old tradition and known for enlightening the British elite, is forming an educational alliance with Star Academies, an organisation renowned for its commitment to providing quality education to underserved, disadvantaged communities.

But this begs the questions: Why can’t Star do it on their own? What is Eton bringing to the party?

What will each of Star and Eton gain from the partnership?

Motivations And Transformations

For some reason, the announcement of this ‘transformative’ venture instantly reminded me of the classic comedy movie from the early 1980s “Trading Places“. The story revolves around a bet between two wealthy brothers, who manipulate and effectively swap the lives of two individuals from completely diverse, extreme social backgrounds: a rich and successful commodities broker and a homeless hustler. The brothers made the bet as a social experiment to prove that someone without the right social breeding and education couldn’t ‘make it’ in business. This was Hollywood, so, of course, the poor guy, played by Eddie Murphy, won out. The shock was that the winning bet was only a measly $1. It was all about pride. Well, this time round, in real-life, the stakes are much higher; Eton is promising to spend £1 million on the project.

A million pounds might seem like a lot of money and is a much-welcomed investment in a deprived area, but, taken in the context of Eton’s total income of more than £100 million in the last financial year, it’s small change. And since the college is a registered charity, this type of benevolence helps to build their tax shield. It’s a great thing to do, but there is at least some self-interest at play.

What are the full motivations? Is it a social experiment?

Critics have questioned whether Eton’s foray into partnerships reflects genuine commitment to social impact or merely a brand extension exercise. The motivation to establish a school in Oldham, a town marked by diversity and economic challenges, invites speculation about the driving forces behind such an endeavour.

Eton says: “We believe these new colleges have the potential to be transformative both for the young people who attend and for the wider communities they will serve.”

Is it the ultimate ‘iron-school’ challenge to bring ‘success’ to a poor area? What will that success look like? Once supercharged with their qualifications, do all the clever children leave the town never to return? If so, what’s the benefit for the community?

While speculation on motivations may vary, the opportunity for positive change through education cannot be dismissed.

As for the transformation plans, they are a short on detail so far. It feels a little condescending, a bit like….

Colonising Education and Historical Implications

The perception of Eton’s outreach efforts inevitably invites considerations of Britain’s colonial past. The idea of exporting a prestigious institution to deprived areas could evoke notions of cultural imposition and paternalism. Addressing this concern requires a careful balance between sharing educational expertise and ensuring that local autonomy, cultures and empowerment are retained.

Collaborative Potentials From Contrasting Cultures

The cultural differences between Eton College and Star Academies could be a rich source of innovative approaches. Eton’s traditional approach to education emphasises discipline, the classics, and academic excellence. Oh, and an alumni network, state-of-the-art theatre and pristine sports grounds, all to die for. Also, as a boarding school, Eton prides itself on embedding ‘character education’ into the curriculum. Is there any downside? Well, it’ll set you back at least £50k per child per year for the ‘privilege’. In contrast, Star Academies embraces cultural diversity, values-based education, and community engagement; all this and lashings of character for free. This polarised partnership could harness the best of both worlds, blending academic rigour with a holistic approach that addresses social and cultural needs.

But there’ll be no boarding, no fees, little alumni network to speak of, so what is Eton bringing to the party?

There May Be Trouble Ahead

Although there is fertile ground in Oldham for ‘creative collaboration‘, the opposed approaches of Eton and Star may lead to fission not fusion. Adapting Eton’s teaching methods to a more diverse and inclusive context requires sensitivity to layers of cultural nuances. Conversely, Star Academies’ experience with disadvantaged communities can shed light on strategies to address educational inequalities, a challenge that transcends backgrounds.

Aiming for Oxbridge

A number of the articles on the story have implied that this new arrangement would lead to more successful Oxbridge applications from the Oldham region.

Eton has form here; their last link-up, with London Academy of Excellence in East London, resulted in 37 offers to Oxbridge. How can that be? The students are the same young people from the same area. Or by being ‘selective’, will the new Eton Star just cream off the brightest students in the region? What is Eton’s ‘secret sauce’? Can we all have some please, Sir?

Well, according to Star, the classified recipe is: “knowledge-rich teaching from some of the country’s most respected subject-specialists, access to talks from high-profile speakers, academic essay prizes and debate clubs, Oxbridge-style tutorial sessions and the chance to learn Latin.” Dictum sapienti sat est.

Yet, Eton’s ambition to help students gain admission to Oxbridge raises questions about the underlying philosophy. While expanding access to esteemed institutions is commendable, doesn’t it just perpetuate elitism and reinforce existing social hierarchies? The challenge lies in ensuring that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are empowered to forge their own routes to fulfilment without reinforcing privilege.

Is This A Vote For A Return To Grammar Schools?

The Eton College and Star Academies partnership exemplifies the intricate interplay of education, culture, history, and privilege. While the collaboration is brimming with potential for transformative change, it must be approached with sensitivity to local contexts and a genuine commitment to fairness. Eton wouldn’t have put their name to the project if they weren’t sure that they could accomplish success; it’s too big a risk as it’ll be under the media spotlight. But if ‘selective’ sixth forms are the way to reignite opportunity in towns like Oldham then why can’t we have them the length and breadth of the country rather than just in a few ‘high-publicity’ cold spots? It feels like a cry for a return to the grammar school system where each town had a local ‘elite’ establishment which offered some young people opportunities to be socially mobile. Now there’s an idea… it time for the return of the grammars?

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