The day Adam received an A* for the maths GCSE he’d sat a year early, he searched local sixth form colleges online and “somehow ended up on the Eton scholarship page.”
Almost 300 miles from Adam’s semi-detached home in Cramlington, an old mining town just north of Newcastle, Eton was certainly not “a local Sixth Form college.” But Adam was an intensely academic and ambitious fifteen-year-old and zeroed in on the opportunity to attend “what looked like the best school in the world”.
“I had been to see Eton when I was eight,” he grins. “We were staying in Windsor on a trip to Legoland. I’d been one of those tourists walking down the high street and taking pictures of everyone in their funny clothes. I’d never even considered it was a possibility for somebody like me. But when I saw the page that day I thought: ‘I could actually do this’”.
Adam wasn’t seduced by the ancient buildings and ‘the penguin suits’ so much as “the idea of being in a classroom with people who were all at my level. The popular assumption is that Eton is a school for toffs,” he says. “But about a fifth of us get some financial assistance, so it’s a lot more meritocratic than people think. You are judged on your behaviour and your achievements, not on your background.”
Although Adam had “a small group of academic friends” at his local state school, he admits that “you’d be laughed at for handing your homework in on time there. I had always loved maths and worked hard. But I was often frustrated by the way we had to stick to the curriculum: there was no pushing beyond or around it.”
Adam relished Eton’s Sixth Form scholarship exams: “They were fun. I can remember a really interesting essay question: ‘Google has changed education for the better. Discuss’”. But he found the interviews far more nerve-wracking.
“I spoke to my Dad after the first one. I said: ‘Well, I’ve had a good couple of days but I’m never coming back.’ I thought I had been appalling. Slow in answering questions, speaking without knowing where I was going… it was awful. But the guy who interviewed me is actually now my tutor, and later said I didn’t perform that badly.”
Sitting in a chemistry lesson back in Cramlington, Adam was called to reception to find his Dad with a letter offering Adam one of nine Sixth Form scholarships awarded across the UK by Eton that year.
His only concern was fitting in to long-established friendship groups. “But the guys really welcomed me in. They all messaged me a few weeks before I started, giving me tips and making plans. That was really nice. It really helped.”
Adam’s faith in the warmth of his new peers was confirmed a few weeks into his time at Eton when a flu virus circulated. “We were told we could leave if we wanted. But I had to buy my train tickets six weeks in advance, so there was no way I could get home. Then one guy invited me to stay at his house. I said: ‘I might start throwing up everywhere!’ and he said that was fine. It was so kind. So unexpected.”
Thanks to the generosity of donors, Eton opened doors previously closed to Adam, paving the way for him to study politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford.
Adam’s parents were relieved to see that, despite the vintage garb and unique rituals, Eton did not remove their son from the realities of life in 21st Century Britain. Adam spends a few hours a week visiting patients on the geriatric ward of a local hospital. The boy who admits he does “put a lot of pressure” on himself has learned: “it’s good to switch off from the things I worry about and see what other people are thinking about. To just sit down and do the crossword with somebody.”
Having begun school as someone who loved the certainty of maths and “hated the way there was no right answer” in English, Adam’s time at Eton has brought an about-turn to that mindset.
Thanks to the generosity of donors, Eton opened doors previously closed to Adam, paving the way for him to study politics, philosophy, and economics at Oxford. He will doubtless move into a career of his choosing. Quite what, though, he is unsure at present.
“Perhaps a classic, Old Etonian career in the City, maybe politics, or something else. I’m grateful for my Eton education. Getting my Oxford offer proved I’d made the best of my opportunities here and I like to reflect on that when I walk through an ancient doorway and remember the 1960s prefab school I came from.”