No sacred cows

The battle for Eton’s soul

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

When trying to get my head around the row that has engulfed Eton College in the past two weeks I keep getting sidetracked by the comic details. Like the fact that the headmaster, Simon Henderson, is nicknamed ‘trendy Hendy’ on account of his mission to transform Eton into a modern, progressive institution. By all accounts, he has set about trying to cleanse the school of its ‘toxic’ traditions with the zeal of a captain in the Red Guards, promising to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum, recruiting the creator of the Everyday Sexism blog to lecture the staff on the gender pay gap and, at one point, proposing to scrap Eton’s famous uniform. Among his initiatives has been to elevate a drama teacher to the post of Director of Inclusion Education. Earlier this year, this redoubtable bluestocking wrote a blog post for the school’s website saying she’d like to see the Black Lives Matter flag flying over the College gateway.

But the conflict being played out at Eton is quite serious, not least because similar battles are being fought across the educational landscape. It began in September with an English teacher, Will Knowland, composing a video lecture in which he encouraged his students to question the idea that there’s something fundamentally toxic about masculinity. According to a letter addressed to the ‘Eton community’ last week, he felt it was important to acquaint the boys with a more positive view of their sex to counter the radical feminist ideology that’s promoted by the school’s leadership team, which portrays traditional male characteristics as inextricably bound up with a system of patriarchal oppression.

After Knowland posted this video on the school intranet, a member of staff complained to the head. The gist of it was that the content of the lecture was degrading and humiliating and, because of this, the headmaster had a legal duty to prevent it being given. Allowing it to go ahead would have constituted a form of discrimination against women — a ‘protected’ characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

To no one’s surprise, trendy Hendy sided with the complainant. He told Knowland to ditch the lecture and remove it from the school’s internal website. Knowland complied, but when the head also instructed him to take it down from his personal YouTube channel he said he would only do so if he was given a good reason. The head’s claim that the content of the lecture breached the Equality Act is debatable. The Act is ambiguously worded and is often invoked by the promoters of equality, diversity and inclusion to silence dissenters from woke orthodoxy in educational settings. So Knowland was prepared to accept the first of the head’s demands. But even on the most cautious reading of the Equality Act, it doesn’t circumscribe what teachers are allowed to post on their social media accounts. When Knowland stood his ground and said he wouldn’t remove the video unless he was given a good reason, the head suspended him and set a process in motion which ended with his dismissal. Not great, given that the 34-year-old teacher is married with five children, one of them disabled, and they live in a grace and favour house belonging to the school. An appeal is scheduled for 8 December.

Will Knowland is a member of the Free Speech Union and I share his view that the purpose of a good education is to equip students with the knowledge and skills to make up their own minds about important issues, not to spoon-feed them ‘correct’ opinions. As he wrote in his letter, if we prioritise emotional safety over intellectual challenge and censor any views that might make students or teachers feel uncomfortable, we will sacrifice one of the most valuable things about education, which is introducing children to new worlds, expanding their horizons and helping them transcend the narrow confines of their everyday lives. It should not be about affirming children’s sense of identity as members of various ethnic and religious groups, and forcing them to tread on eggshells lest they offend someone with a ‘protected’ characteristic.

Ultimately, the only solution may be to persuade the government to amend the Equality Act, making it clear that it cannot be used to stop students being introduced to a broad range of ideas, even if some people find them objectionable. If that happens, I hope it’s called the ‘Knowland amendment’ in honour of this brave teacher who’s prepared to sacrifice his career to stand up for what he believes in.

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