The school's Headmaster, Anthony Little MA, is a member of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference and the school is a member of the Eton Group of independent schools in the United Kingdom. It has a very long list of distinguished former pupils, including eighteen former British Prime Ministers. Traditionally, Eton has been referred to as "the chief nurse of England's statesmen", and is often described as the most famous public school in the world.
The school is headed by a Provost and Fellows (Board of Governors), who appoint the Head Master. It contains 25 boys' houses, each headed by a housemaster, selected from the more senior members among the teaching staff, who number approximately 160.
The Good Schools Guide called the school "the number one boys' public school," adding, "The teaching and facilities are second to none.
Eton College was founded in 1440 by Henry VI as a charity school to provide free education to seventy poor boys who would then go on to King's College, Cambridge, a constituent college of the University of Cambridge, which he also founded in 1441. This was a copy of William of Wykeham's link between Winchester College and New College, Oxford. Henry VI took half the scholars and the headmaster from William of Wykeham's Winchester College (founded 1382). Eton was modelled on Winchester College, and became popular in the 17th century.
When Henry VI founded the school, he granted it a huge number of endowments, including much valuable land, a plan for formidable buildings (Henry intended the nave of the College Chapel to be the longest in Europe) and several religious relics, supposedly including a part of the True Cross and the Crown of Thorns. He even persuaded the then Pope, Eugene IV, to grant a privilege unparalleled anywhere in England: the right to grant Indulgences to penitents on the Feast of the Assumption.
However, when Henry was deposed by Edward IV in 1461, the new king annulled all grants to the school and removed most of its assets and treasures to St George's Chapel, Windsor, on the other side of the River Thames. Legend has it that Edward's mistress, Jane Shore, intervened on the school's behalf and was able to save much of the school, although the royal bequest and the number of staff were much reduced. Construction of the Chapel, originally intended to be slightly over twice as long, with eighteen - or possibly seventeen - bays (there are eight today) was stopped when Henry VI was deposed, with only the Quire of the intended building ever completed. Provost William Waynflete, previously Head Master of Winchester College, built the ante-chapel that finishes the Chapel today.
As the school suffered reduced income at a stage when much of it was still under construction, the completion and further development of the school has ever since depended on wealthy benefactors. Many of these benefactors are honoured with school buildings in their name. They include Bishop William Waynflete and Roger Lupton, whose name is borne by the central tower which is perhaps the most famous image of the school.
In the 19th century, the architect John Shaw Jr (1803–70), became surveyor to Eton and designed new parts of the college which helped provide better pupil accommodation.
The Duke of Wellington is often quoted as saying that "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton", but this has been challenged. Wellington briefly attended Eton – for which he had no great love – in the late 18th century, when the school had no playing fields and no organised team sports, and the statement was first recorded three years after his death. The Duke was, however, wildly popular at Eton, visiting many times in his later life.
A nuclear bunker was constructed under the college in 1959 to house the College's Provost and Fellows, and is now used for storage.
In 2005 the school was one of fifty of the country's leading private schools which were found guilty of running an illegal price-fixing cartel, exposed by The Times, which had allowed them to drive up fees for thousands of parents. Each school was required to pay a nominal penalty of £10,000 and all agreed to make ex-gratia payments totalling £3,000,000 into a trust designed to benefit pupils who attended the schools during the period in respect of which fee information was shared.
They are called halves because the school year was split into two halves, between which the boys went home.
King's Scholars are entitled to use the letters "KS" after their name and they can be identified by a black gown worn over the top of their tailcoats, for which they used to be referred to as tugs (Latin: togati, wearers of gowns); and occasionally by a surplice in Chapel.
Not all boys who pass the College election examination choose to become King's Scholars. If they choose instead to belong to one of the 24 Oppidan Houses, they are known as Oppidan Scholars. Oppidan Scholarships may also be awarded for consistently performing with distinction in school and external examinations. To gain an Oppidan Scholarship, a boy must have either three distinctions in a row or four throughout his career. An Oppidan Scholar is entitled to use the letters OS after his name.
The Oppidan Houses are named South Lawn, Waynflete, Evans', Keate, The Hopgarden, Warre, Villiers, Godolphin, Common Lane, Penn, Walpole, Hawtrey, Cotton Hall, Wootton, Holland, Mustians, Jourdelay's, Angelo's, Manor, Durnford, Farrer, Baldwin's Bec, The Timbralls and Westbury. But they are much more commonly referred to by the initials of their occupying housemaster, such as ASR.
There are entire house gatherings every evening, usually around 8:10-8:30 p.m. These are known as Prayers, due to their original nature. The housemaster and boys have an opportunity to make announcements, and sometimes light entertainment is provided by boys. There are many inter-house competitions, mostly in the field of sport.
For much of Eton's history, junior boys had to act as fags, or servants, to older boys. Their duties included cleaning, cooking and running errands. A Library member was entitled to yell at any time and without notice "Boy, Up!" or "Boy, Queue!", and all first year boys had to come running. The last boy to arrive was given the task. These practices, known as fagging, were phased out of most houses in the 1970s and completely abolished in the 1980s, although first year boys are still given some tasks by the Captains of House and Games.
The long-standing tradition that the present uniform was first worn as mourning for the death of George III is unfounded, as "Eton dress" has undergone significant changes since its standardisation in the 19th century. Originally (along with a top-hat and walking-cane) merely Etonian dress for formal occasions, it is still worn today for classes, which are referred to as "schools". Members of the teaching staff (known as Beaks) are also required to wear a form of school dress when teaching.
From the 19th century until 1967, boys under the height of 5'4" were required to wear the Eton suit, which replaced the tailcoat with the cropped Eton jacket (known colloquially as a "bum-freezer") and included an Eton collar, a large, stiff-starched, white collar. The Eton suit was copied by other schools and has remained in use in some, particularly choir schools.
The traditional emphasis was on classical studies, which tended to be dominated by Latin and Ancient History, and, for boys with sufficient ability, Classical Greek. But in recent times this has radically changed: for example, there are over 100 students of Chinese. In the 1970s, there was just one school computer, in a small room attached to the science buildings, which used rolls of paper with punch-holes to store programs. Today, all boys must have laptop computers, and a fiber-optic network connects all classrooms and all boys' bedrooms to the Internet.
The primary responsibility for a boy's studies lies with his housemaster, but he is often assisted by an additional director of studies, known as a tutor. Classes, which are colloquially known as "divs" (divisions), are organised on a school basis; the classrooms are separate from the houses. New school buildings have been erected in recent times, but despite the introduction of modern technology, the external appearance and locations of many of the classrooms have remained unchanged for a long time.
Every evening, about an hour and a quarter, known as Quiet Hour, is set aside, during which boys are expected to study or prepare work for their teachers if not otherwise engaged. Some houses, upon the discretion of the House Master, may observe a second Quiet Hour after Prayers in the Evening. This is however less formal, with boys being allowed to visit each others' rooms to socialise if neither boy has outstanding work.
The Independent Schools Inspectorate's latest report says "Eton College provides an exceptionally good quality of education for all its pupils. They achieve high academic standards as a result of stimulating teaching, challenging expectations and first-class resources."
If any boy produces an outstanding piece of work, it may be "Sent Up For Good". The boy receives a card which he must get signed by his housemaster, tutor and head master. The work is then stored in the College Archives for posterity. The award has been around since the 18th century. Most famous students at Eton have been Sent Up For Good including Robert Boyle, chemist and physicist, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, an Oxford scholar well-known for his War Poem Achilles in the Trench, Ronald Knox, theologian, priest and crime-writer, and John Maynard Keynes, the economist. The latter is reputed to have been Sent Up For Good more times than anyone else, although nobody knows this for certain. As Sending Up For Good is fairly infrequent, the process is rather mysterious to many of Eton's boys. First, the master wishing to Send Up For Good must gain the permission of the relevant Head of Department. Upon receiving his or her approval, the piece of work will be marked with Sent Up For Good and the student will receive a card to be signed by housemaster, tutor and division master. After having shown his work to the Head of Department, the boy must collect the material he will need from the School Office (a plastic wallet with a piece of paper on the front to be signed by the division master and Head Master) to complete the process.
The opposite of a Show Up is a Rip. This is for sub-standard work, which is sometimes torn at the top of the page/sheet and must be submitted to the boy's housemaster for signature. Boys who accumulate rips are liable to be given a White Ticket, which must be signed by all his teachers and may be accompanied by other punishments, usually involving chores or lines. In recent times, a milder form of the rip, known as the info, which must also be signed, has been introduced.
Internal examinations are held at the end of the Michaelmas (Autumn) term for all pupils, and in the Summer term for those in the first year, who have no public exams, and those in the second year, who take two or three GCSEs early and then take the exams in all other subjects they are studying. These internal examinations are called Trials.
A boy who is late for any division or other appointment may be required to sign Tardy Book, a register kept in the School Office, between 7.35am and 7.45am, every morning for the duration of his sentence (typically three days). For more serious misdeeds, a boy is summoned from his lessons to talk to the Head Master personally about his misdeeds. This is known as the Bill. The most serious misdeeds may result in expulsion, or rustication (suspension). The term derives from the Latin word 'rus', countryside, to indicate that a boy has been sent back to his family in the country, and is also traditionally used at Oxford and Cambridge.
A traditional form of punishment took the form of being made to copy, by hand, Latin hexameters. Miscreants were frequently set 100 hexameters by library members, or, for more serious offences, Georgics (more than 500 hexameters) by their House Masters or the Head Master. The giving of a Georgic is now extremely rare, but still occasionally occurs.
The annual cricket match against Harrow at Lord's is the oldest fixture of the cricketing calendar, having been played there since 1805. In 1914, its importance was such that over 38,000 people attended the two days' play, and in 1910 the match made national headlines. But interest has since declined considerably, and the match is now a one day limited overs contest. Tennis and Athletics are also popular.
The school's musical protégés recently came into light with the documentary A Boy Called Alex, which documented an Etonian, Alex Stobbs, a musician with cystic fibrosis, who worked towards conducting the difficult Magnificat by Johann Sebastian Bach. The Jazz trumpeter and Radio Broadcaster Humphrey Lyttleton attended Eton.
Many plays are put on every year at Eton; there is one main theatre, called the Farrer, and several other venues (Caccia Studios and several halls). There are about 8 or 9 house productions each year, around 10 "Independent" plays (not confined solely to one house, produced, directed and funded by Etonians) and three School Plays, one specifically for boys in the first two years, and two open to all years. The School Play in the Summer Half is normally fully booked every night, due to its important reputation. Most recently, the school has put on Blood Wedding by Lorca, Godspell and King Lear; it is due to put on A Flea in Her Ear and Henry IV (a condensed version of both parts) in the next two terms. Girls from surrounding schools, such as St Mary's School Ascot, Windsor Girls' School and Heathfield St Mary's School often come in to play female roles.
The Drama department used to be headed by Simon Dormandy, ex-RSC and TV/film actor, and now is directed by Hailz-Emily Osborne, whilst Dormandy has taken the role of Head of Theatre Studies; the school offers GCSE Drama, and a combined course of A Level English and Drama.
Other school magazines including Spectrum and The Arts Review have been published, as well as publications produced by individual departments such as The Cave (Philosophy) and Etonomics (Economics) Releases of issues generally coincide with important events in the Eton calendar.
In September 2005, Eton was one of the leading British schools which were considered by the Office of Fair Trading to be operating a fee-fixing cartel in breach of the Competition Act 1998. All of the schools were ordered to abandon this practice.
Eton runs a number of courses to students from the maintained sector, the majority of which occur during the longer summer holidays which run from July through to the end of August. The Universities Summer School was first established in 1982 and is an intensive residential course which is open to boys and girls who attend maintained schools throughout the UK and who are at the end of their first year in the Sixth Form and about to begin their final year of schooling. The Brent-Eton Summer School, which started in 1994, offers 40–50 young people from Brent a one-week programme, free of charge, designed to bridge the gap between GCSE and A-level. The school also runs a number of choral courses during the summer months.
Past students of Eton College are Old Etonians. In recent years, the school has become popular with the British Royal Family; Princes William and Harry are Old Etonians. Eton has also produced eighteen British Prime Ministers, including William Ewart Gladstone, Robert Walpole and the first Duke of Wellington. A rising number of students come to Eton from overseas, including members of royal families from Africa and Asia, some of whom have been sending their sons to Eton for generations. One of them, King Prajadhipok or Rama VII (1893 - 1941) of Siam, donated a garden to Eton. Famous actors that attended Eton include Hugh Laurie. Many fictional characters have been described as Old Etonians. These include Bertie Wooster and Ronald Eustace Psmith from the books by P. G. Wodehouse, the pirate who used the pseudonym Captain Hook, the detective Lord Peter Wimsey, the secret agent James Bond, and Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited.
The mediaevalist and ghost story writer M. R. James was provost of Eton from 1918 until his death in 1936.