In the mid 1980s a group of comprehensive school girls from Windsor got a unique insight into life at their famous neighbour Eton College, when they were invited to take part in Russian A level lessons, a subject not offered by their own state school. Helen Shields, a sixth former at Princess Margaret Royal Free School, wrote an article on her experiences there in 1986 for her school magazine (ref. D/P149/25/196 ).
Helen told her fellow pupils:
‘The Etonians are just ordinary modern-day teenagers with the same interests as the average teenage boy:- girls, fashion, parties and generally having a good time. There are only two real differences between them and other people and they were given no choice in the matter. They were just fortunate to be born into rich families and they could not help the way their parents taught them to speak. I admit that there are a number of arrogant and stereotyped pupils, but despite the general public opinion, the majority of the pupils are friendly and perfectly normal people. Unfortunately, they are not really given the chance to mix with and get to know the local people.’
At this time, annual fees were £4,500, which would probably be classed as a bargain for tuition fees today. Helen went on to explain the teaching system at Eton, which she enjoyed and found worthwhile, and also shared the boys’ own criticisms of their lives:
‘They feel very conspicuous in their uniform… If people believe that they are all ‘horrendous snobs’ with nothing in common with normal teenagers, making them walk around Windsor in tweed jackets and ties is certainly not going to help. Many of the pupils would like to be able to get to know and become friends with Windsor teenagers. They hate the ‘mickey’ being taken out of them by other teenagers when they go into the town centre, so they seem to us to be very inhibited, boring and un-friendly. They know the response they would get from us if they tried to be friendly, so they do not think that it is worth the bother. If we started to be more friendly and humane towards them, it would probably help them a lot... They would like to be allowed out in the evenings and for whole weekends.’
Perhaps the common conception of Eton was actually a misconception.