The British exam system is, for the most part, based on assessment objectives: tick the boxes and you're guaranteed a great result. At Eton, while you are taught to tick the boxes, this is merely a preliminary measure: the emphasis in on going beyond the exam and enjoying the subject in all its depth. In English Literature, to take just one example, this means students enjoy deep and wide-ranging discussions not normally seen until the final year of a University degree. With excellent examination results expected and a huge proportion of the student body moving on to Oxford and Cambridge, Eton is best-suited to the highest-achieving students. That said, every student cannot be expected to excel in every subject and provision for those struggling is just as excellent. Close scrutiny is given to personal academic development and to progress relative to peers, which housemasters and personal tutors follow through the school's electronic reporting system: teachers file feedback for every student every couple of weeks. There is also a system of merits for good work (a few times a year, the very best pieces of work are put into the school's College Library, alongside some of the world's rarest manuscripts) as well as for poor or lazy work, meaning appraisal is effectively given every step of the way. For the first two years, class sizes are generally around twenty students per class. However, this becomes between three and ten students per class when students specialize in the final two years. Workload can seem daunting for some at first: students will often find themselves with several hours' worth of work to do on their own each weekday evening (called "EWs" [extra work] rather than homework, for obvious reasons). The emphasis is on learning to do things for oneself, and getting students started on the EW system early puts them in fantastic stead for University.
The question to really ask is: what activities aren't there for students? Every sport under the sun is catered for, and the school has a vast expanse of playing fields as well as a large gymnasium. The school funded the 2.25km rowing lake which is going to be used in the London 2012 Olympics. Students choose between soccer and rugby in the first semester of the year, between hockey and the Field Game (an Eton-specific ball game) in the second semester and between cricket, rowing and athletics in the third semester - these are classed as "major sports". In addition to these, boys are encouraged to try as many alternative sports as they can in their first year, and by their second year they are given pretty wide freedom to practice one that suits them, whether that's fencing, martial arts, basketball or anything else. If a sport isn't offered, a teacher is often willing to espouse its cause - thus how American football began a few years ago. The school takes on other schools in all the major and many of the minor sports. There are also internal, inter-house competitions in both kinds of sport. The result is a strange sense of school solidarity combined with internal competition. Students can take their sport to whatever level they like - whether that's once a semester, once a week or daily. I took up rowing daily, year-round, in the school's lake and on the Thames and got to compete in national rowing competitions, as well as local regattas most weekends. Sport was just one of the areas in which I made lasting friendships. For the less sporty, every instrument (even the didgeridoo!) is offered in the state-of-the-art music department, which includes a fantastic music technology suite, recording studio and rock room. The school puts on an amazing concert with its orchestra and big bands every term. There are two theatres in the school. In addition to the school and lower-school productions, there are house plays in which all are encouraged to get involved. Some boys also write, direct or produce independent plays which take advantage of either the theatre spaces or other, original spaces in the school. Many of these go on to be great successes at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The technically-minded enjoy themselves working in the Farrer Theatre, a professional-standard set-up. The tech crew help to prepare sets and rig lighting - by their third and fourth years, they can be designing their own sets. Past students who enjoyed Eton's facilities include Hugh Laurie, star of House MD; Max Pirkis, star of Master and Commander and Rome. The design department offers material and graphic design in class-time and in an extra-curricular capacity. Similarly, boys can enjoy painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, printmaking and digital art both in and out of class in the school's art department.
The school's faculties and 25 boarding houses are spread around a village campus which is not separated from the outside world, but nonetheless safe thanks to both a police presence and the school's own security team. Every boy gets their own room in their boarding house: at no stage do they have to share with other students. Each boarding house consists of 50 boys, a matron and a housemaster. Pastoral care rarely falls short. The boarding house system does not preclude students from making friends in the wider school - in class, sport, drama and art, students will form lasting friendships with boys in other houses. Most boarding houses go to a central canteen for meals: the quality of the food here is almost always good and often excellent. Some boarding houses have their own dining arrangements, and these are mostly good too although it is worth trying a house's food first! The village of Eton has a post office, newsagent, small electronics shop and food store. At weekends and on some half days, students can go into Windsor where there is a wider range of shops. There are also two railway stations, offering regular and quick services to London, the Thames Valley and Oxfordshire. The school is very close to London Heathrow airport, which is useful for international students. Aircraft noise is rarely an issue, though. Slough, just over a mile away from Eton, is a relatively deprived area and older students often help out in schools and care homes in the town. Houses will often have social events with girls' schools, and Eton frequently collaborates with Wycombe Abbey, St Mary's Ascot and others in dramatic productions: students do not emerge as sexist or misogynistic, and any such attitudes are stamped on quickly. With so much on offer, it is hard to be unhappy at Eton.
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