For many years Eton named and shamed boys who were struggling academically in front of their peers – and for many boys that shame has never left them. Edwin Smith goes in search of those who were tarred
Since 1440, when Eton College was founded between the banks of the Thames and the inauspicious town of Slough, the school has provided 19 British prime ministers – more than the combined total of its two closest rivals, Harrow (seven) and Westminster (six). Even in the more meritocratic 21st century, its tendrils have continued to spread far and wide. At one point during David Cameron’s premiership, the prime minister, three members of his cabinet, the mayor of London (Boris Johnson), the Archbishop of Canterbury (Justin Welby) and the then-second and third in line to the throne (Princes William and Harry) were all Old Etonians. From the government to the church and the monarchy, they had it all sewn up.
Aside from these well-known establishment figures, however, there is a sub-category of OE who aren’t merely un-famous, but are, in fact, positively difficult to identify.
I first got wind of them when Ben Elliot – nephew of Camilla Parker Bowles, founder of concierge service Quintessentially, and an OE himself – was interviewed in front of about 150 people by Sir David Tang. Speaking about his school days, Elliot reflected on how the difference between success and failure was made obvious to him from an early age. In fact, there was a particular practice at his alma mater that made the contrast abundantly clear. He recalled how boys who had done particularly badly in their end-of-term exams would be given the title of ‘GTF’, short for ‘General Total Failure’. More than a quarter of a century later, he could still remember the name of the boy from his year who received the unfortunate label, and he bellowed it out, impersonating the teacher who would publicly call out the GTFs’ names in front of 250 of their peers.
Eventually, I’d learn that GTFs were named and shamed as part of a wider process known as ‘reading over’. In the first two or three years of a boy’s Eton career, between
the ages of 13 and 16, he would file into the Farrer Theatre at the end of the Michaelmas and Summer terms, when ‘trials’ – internal school exams – were taken. There he
would wait as each boy’s name was read out according to his performance.
The most feeble performers were named first and were often, though not always, declared ‘General Total Failures’ by the junior housemaster. (Apart from the embarrassment and stigma, there were more tangible consequences: get tarred with that brush a couple more times and you would be kicked out.) This continued all the way up until, finally, the name of the boy who came top of the year was called.
It made sense that a production line for the leaders of tomorrow would be hard on the lumps of clay that didn’t fit its mould, but even so the practice seemed extraordinary. I wondered what had become of those ‘failures’ – the other, untold side of Eton’s extraordinary record of influence and success. What had their lives been like? What might their experiences reveal about the system that also shaped so many of our most prominent public figures?
My search for Eton’s lost boys – I estimated that there might be as many as 250 of them – began with a trawl through LinkedIn. Looking for Old Etonians with the right surname who were about the same age as Ben Elliot, I found an investment banker. I left several messages with his secretary but didn’t hear back, so I widened the net by contacting the author Tom Sykes, who had made a reference to GTFs in an article about his own school days. He remembered the names of two GTFs from his time.
I found the first via the impressive-looking website of his luxury travel business. I dropped him a line asking if he might speak to me, but his reply came back one minute later: ‘I don’t wish to be involved in this thank you.’
I responded. If he ever changed his mind and decided that it seemed better to shed light on the phenomenon, then he would always have a sympathetic ear – and a guarantee of anonymity, should he want it. This time his reply took two minutes. But it was exactly the same.
‘Wow. Poor sod. Traumatic,’ wrote Sykes when I told him what had happened. The second of his leads turned out to be the managing director of a grand-looking old people’s home, who came to the phone when I asked to speak with him. But he, too, was reluctant and refused to say much other than that he didn’t want to criticise his old school.
One of the few other references to GTFs was in the autobiography of the Olympic gold-medal-winning horseman, William Fox-Pitt. ‘There was a certain barbarity to the way it was run,’ he wrote, adding that the order revealed during reading over was ever-present in daily life, being used for all lists, registers and roll calls. ‘So, in theory, the lazier or dimmer you were, the less likely you were to be rescued in the case, say, of a fire.’
When I call Fox-Pitt, he tells me he can still clearly remember ‘the exact names’ of the boys from his year who were GTFs. ‘And I’ve had a bang on the head. (He was placed in an induced coma following a riding accident in 2015.) I forget lots, but I can still remember that.’
‘Eton wasn’t designed for everyone,’ he says, although one GTF he knows is now ‘quite a success in London’, while another was a ‘dropout’. ‘I think it was a way of kicking out the individuals that weren’t coping – getting rid of the lazy ones and encouraging the best ones to be even better. It’s a bit of a taster, it opens your eyes. In the [run of the mill] school day everything is very comfortable, but the reality of life is that’s not the case. I wouldn’t be against it for my children.’
But others most certainly would. ‘It’s a really, really brutal system,’ says Otto Bathurst, an OE who is now a TV and film director. He speaks to me from LA while working on a film project. ‘To have a label like “General Total Failure” slapped on you at the age of 13 is an extraordinary imposition. What needs to be appreciated is that it doesn’t just affect the one or two kids who get that label every year: everybody else gets affected by it quite dramatically too. Because those who are not General Total Failures are desperately trying not to be, or consider themselves to be better than those that are. It was a horrendous and archaic practice – such a toxic force to bring into a child’s evolution.’
Bathurst wasn’t a GTF himself, but he remains in contact with people who endured a torrid time because of the school’s system. ‘They’re still carrying it 30 years on,’ he says. ‘I can still feel that in their self-awareness, their lack of self-belief. It’s a major body wound for their whole life.’ He’s still friends with a someone who might easily have received the label following the first trials of his school career but was spared. He agrees to put me in touch with him.
‘Our whole year was sat down in the theatre,’ says Laurie Campbell (not his real name), recounting his brush with GTF-dom. ‘The lower master stood up – I can still remember: “Well, there have been no GTFs, but the boys at the bottom will have to work very hard, or they’ll find themselves in trouble.” I was very confident. But then: “252nd: Campbell minor.” I remember feeling almost as if the life was being drained from me. I burst into tears, trying to stifle them so people wouldn’t see me. I was punch-drunk. So amazed.’
After the announcement, his friends and the master of his own boarding house were kind to him. ‘But the problem was, I’d had that read out in front of my whole year. It had an even bigger impact because my brother was such a clever boy. It’s something I never really shook off again. It wasn’t until I left that I realised I am actually quite bright, I do have something to say for myself.’
Decades later, the stigma is still there. When a contemporary from Eton contacted him out of the blue recently to ask for an introduction to some potential clients, Campbell was, at first, happy to oblige. But things changed. ‘In one email, he said, “I don’t remember being in any classes with you. You were near the bottom.”
‘I was gobsmacked. It was the chip on my shoulder which I thought I’d got rid of a long time ago. But that email took me right back to being a 14-year-old, rather insecure, little boy.’ He replied saying it was better not to meet. ‘Some people don’t move on. It was a funny old place.’
Campbell and several other OEs I spoke to had assumed that the tradition of naming and shaming GTFs had existed for hundreds of years. But David Benedictus, author of the Eton-based novel The Fourth of June, who was at the school from 1951-56, doesn’t remember it. (Although he does recall that students who didn’t do well – like him – were held back a year.) Nor does Nick Fraser, author of The Importance of Being Eton and creator of the BBC documentary strand Storyville, who was at the school in the Sixties.
Of course, Eton College itself would be able to throw some light on the matter, or so you’d think. The school refused a request for access to its archives and declined an interview with the current headmaster, Simon Henderson.
Another former headmaster, however, was willing to speak. After teaching Tony Blair at Fettes, Sir Eric Anderson took charge at Eton in 1980 and presided over the school careers of David Cameron, Boris Johnson and Prince William. The practice of naming GTFs endured throughout his tenure – although he believes it was introduced by one of his two immediate predecessors in an effort to ‘jack up the academic standards’.
‘It served two purposes,’ said Sir Eric: to encourage boys to work harder, out of a sense of competition, and to let their parents know how well they were doing at the end of term, since full school reports wouldn’t be available until some time later. ‘I was headmaster for 14 years and I didn’t have a single complaint from a parent about that system,’ said Anderson, who also noted that ‘reading over’ – or a form of it – was how every episode of Strictly Come Dancing ended. ‘I don’t remember a complaint from a boy, either. But then perhaps a General Total Failure boy didn’t want to come near the headmaster.’ The practice of naming GTFs seems to have ended with Anderson’s tenure in 1994.
Weeks after I left a message with the investment banker who could have been the GTF from Ben Elliot’s story, he returns my call. Would he speak to me about GTFs? ‘There’s not a cat’s chance in hell!’ he says at first. But he comes round when it’s agreed that he can talk anonymously. It turns out that he wasn’t a GTF, but his younger brother was.
‘Certain people should never have been at that school in the first place,’ the elder brother says. ‘It’s a bygone era. Parents pushed and pushed and pushed to do what they thought was the right thing for the family – it was completely wrong for the child. If I tell you, in general terms, that a boy who was born very prematurely and who was exceptionally dyslexic was forced to go a school which has high academic expectations, you can imagine what damage that did to his self-confidence.’
He is now a parent himself and, like several of the OEs I spoke with, sees parallels between the pressures his generation faced and the experience of children at elite UK schools today. ‘In some respects, I think it’s much worse. If there are 12,000 people applying for the internship at UBS, for instance, you’ve got to push damn hard to beat the others. So parents force their kids into tutoring. I think the schools are a lot better, but I think the parents are a lot worse. Most of my colleagues from America and Russia are gobsmacked at what we do in this country. They think it’s extraordinary, the pressure that we’re putting on our children.’
‘While [GTFs are] a bizarre anomaly, I would argue that children now are under more pressure,’ says Otto Bathurst, who also has young children. ‘You only have to look at the rise in things like mental illness and suicide, particularly in young boys.’
Indeed, it’s not just at Eton where shaming and ‘in-group processes’ influence people during their formative years, says Dr Richard Sherry, consultant psychologist at Psychological Systems and one of the professionals who works with the wellbeing clinic Addcounsel. Dr Sherry has treated many people who, despite ‘getting a very good educational experience’, feel their time at one of the country’s top public schools was ‘emotionally very distressing and even damaging for them’. At Harrow, for example, ‘there would be more of a culture of physical violence, depending on which house you were in’.
‘One of the key things that I’ve heard,’ says Dr Sherry, ‘is that often the partners of these men feel that they’re not good with intimacy, they’re emotionally quite distant and emotionally cold and switched off in a way.’
On the other side of the equation, there are people who have thrived in the same systems: ‘Take David Cameron’s group,’ says Dr Sherry. ‘They were described as being out of touch. But it’s not so much that they were out of touch; it’s that they’ve gone through this kind of “beasting” process. They feel that nobody else would be able to work as hard or do as well.’ In their eyes, ‘GTFs may be a “total failure” and labelled as such. But they’re still better than most outside human beings.’
Despite putting some meat on the bones of what it meant to be a GTF, weeks of research and interviews with OEs hadn’t yielded much information about what became of the boys in question. Those who had known GTFs had been reluctant or unable to put me in touch. The GTFs that I had been able to contact hadn’t wanted to speak. I was starting to think they were destined to remain hidden for ever.
But there is one former GTF who has become extremely well known. He is also, demonstrably, not a failure. He was selected for the SAS, became the youngest Briton to climb Everest and is now an international television personality.
‘Academically I did OK at Eton and went on to do a degree,’ Bear Grylls (for it is he) told the Times Educational Supplement back in 2008. ‘But having really worked hard to get there, I got rather distracted by my extracurricular activities and occasionally my name would be read out at the end of term as a “GTF” – which stood for general total failure. Deep down I think that gave me more determination to excel at climbing and karate, things I enjoyed and was good at.’
When I contacted Grylls’ representatives to ask if he’d be willing to speak to me about GTF-dom and the way it had affected his life, they declined to comment. That’s understandable, of course. Grylls may be more famous and more successful than other GTFs. But, just like them, it seems he’d now prefer his brush with schoolboy infamy to remain Generally, Totally Forgotten.
Edwin Smith is a regular contributor to Spear's
This article first appeared in the July/August 2018 edition of Spear’s. Find a copy at WH Smith travel stores and select news agents, or subscribe here: https://www.spearswms.com/subscribe/