Eton's outgoing head, Tony Little, was baffled by the reception he got when addressing a conference of headteachers in Beijing.
He was extolling the virtues of the boarding sector's pastoral care system when he noticed that half the headteachers were sitting in stony silence while the other half were enthusiastically applauding.
He only found out why afterwards, when he was told that "pastoral care" had been simultaneously translated to the audience as "corporal punishment".
Little is leaving his post as headmaster at the end of this term after 13 years in the job and will act as honorary president of the Boarding Schools Association – hopefully extolling the sector's virtues more accurately to audiences he will address. He will then take up an appointment as chief education officer of the international GEMS network of schools.
Unlike some of his predecessors at Eton, some of whom shunned the limelight, Little has been sought after on the education conference circuit, where he has delivered many a thought-provoking address.
Last week, speaking at the Boarding Schools Association annual conference in London, he admitted that boarding schools were in part to blame for their reputation as "shadowy, strange institutions" which – as with other organisations in the Seventies – ignored allegations of abuse made by young people. That, he said, had changed with the introduction of the Children's Act. For the past decade, he has been confident of BSA's ability to handle any allegations.
Perhaps he was able to develop a more common touch as a result of coming from a family where no one previously had been educated beyond the age of 14. One thing is for sure: he broke a pledge made in his early teenage years when he vowed never to become a teacher. Eton will be the happier for that.
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