The most elite UK boarding school built a startup to teach kids to be assertive and persuasive

A very British export.
A very British export.
Image: Reuters/Eddie Keogh
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At Eton College, Britain’s most famous boarding school, boys wear tailcoats to class each day. An unusually high number of Britain’s prime ministers have graduated from there—19 so far. Now the most elite boarding school on the planet has designed a seven-week online course that aims to give teens around the world the same take-charge-of-a-room kind of confidence that its pupils seem to derive from attending.

Starting in September, EtonX, a London-based startup which is fully owned by Eton College, will offer eight online courses in so-called “future skills” for young people between the ages of 14 and 20. These include “Making an Impact” (with modules on assertiveness, active listening and persuasion), public speaking, interview skills, critical thinking, verbal communication, entrepreneurial skills, writing, and penning a killer CV.

“These skills aren’t new, but they are more important than they have ever been,” said Catherine Whitaker, CEO, at the EdTechX conference in London on Tuesday (June 19). 

The online courses are limited to eight kids per class, and currently cost $399 for the full seven-week, accredited version. Each course is directed by an Eton teacher, but taught by online tutors who are trained by Eton. In other words, it’s Eton-designed content, but online students won’t have direct contact with Eton teachers, who no doubt contribute greatly to the success, and confidence, of their students.

Educators love to debate what skills, mindsets, and competencies kids will need to thrive in the global economy of the future. The prevailing wisdom today is that we should focus on skills that cannot be automated, such as creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication. Learning scientists have found these skills can be just as important as academic ones in predicting how kids fare in life, in terms of their jobs, incomes, and life satisfaction. 

Whitaker told Quartz EtonX wants to recreate what makes the boarding school’s education unique—beyond the academics. The course’s designers concluded that what sets the school apart is its massive co-curricular focus on sports, drama, art, and music, and the dozens of societies it offers, including ones for philosophy  (Wotton’s), left-wing politics (Orwell) and equestrians (Rous). “What is special is they genuinely care about the rounded nature of the education,” Whitaker said.

Of course, it’s unclear whether that holistic approach translates to a teen sitting at home on a computer in China, in “class” with a student from Singapore.  Nevertheless, schools from Eton to Harvard are aggressively capitalizing on the fact that their brands are admired around the world, and demand for their services is ever greater. Since by design, elite schools cannot scale, creating online courses for executives or students is a way to monetize the brand and internal expertise. It doesn’t hurt that demand for soft skills from places like China, where students excel at test-taking but struggle with initiative, is huge.

Whitaker says the classes are “flipped” in the sense that kids do self-study and peer work at home, and then come to class prepared to participate. EtonX ran two pilots last year, one in 24 countries with 100 students using the “Making an Impact” class. She said 80% of the students reported they were more assertive after taking the class (an unsurprising finding, considering the course). 

Measuring soft skills is still in its early stages, and a fraught process compared to seeing if one understands fractions or biology. “Someday we will have some standards, but it’s early days for understanding what reliable assessment looks like,” Whitaker admits. They test kids three ways: on knowledge of the subject; teacher assessments from activities and online observations; and questions about whether the students themselves think they have made progress.

This is the second generation of EtonX. Its first initiative, the Modern Leadership Programme, ran in China from 2015-2017. It used a blended learning model, combining traditional teaching with online materials and one-to-one tutorials with 25 schools across China. In that case, the local teachers had control of the content, making measurement of impact tricky. Now EtonX will work with a few Chinese partners, controlling the content and delivery.

If the company ever makes a profit, all of it will go toward scholarships (called bursaries in the UK) to help Eton meet its goal of being needs-blind. Ironically, the only kids in the world who cannot take the courses are British: Eton College is a UK charity, and can’t be a profit-seeking venture.