(Photo by Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Is the malaise at Eton symptomatic of something wider?

Is the whole institution of the public school starting to become unfit for purpose in the 21st century?

Eton College is the most famous boys’ public school in the world. It has produced countless statesmen – including many Prime Ministers, actors, writers and criminals – and to be “an Old Etonian” is a brand name that connotes either tremendous sophistication and breeding or ineffable arrogance and a peerless superiority complex, depending on who you are talking to.

At a time when boarding schools are said to be suffering both economically and socially, there has never been a shortage of parents happy to pay the £42,501 fees a year so their son can be inducted into that most exclusive of castes.

Unfortunately, Eton is currently suffering from two instances of embarrassing difficulty: one as old-fashioned and in its own way traditional as any other malaise affecting private education, and the other decidedly modern.

It seems as if the heyday of private education may have passed

The first problem that it has faced is the recent conviction of the school’s former housemaster Matthew Mowbray for sexually abusing pupils. It was recorded that Mowbray would visit his charges in their rooms late at night and, under the guise of administering pastoral care, would grope the boys in their beds. The defence initially attempted to suggest that Mowbray was merely a concerned and – if you will – hands on teacher whose unique style of ministering to his pupils was eccentric but effective, but this soon crumbled after Mowbray admitted to making indecent and pornographic images of children with the faces of his favourite boys superimposed upon them.

Mowbray will undoubtedly serve a long jail sentence for his activities and was fired by the school as soon as his crimes came to light. Yet it is an unfortunate feature of the public school system that pederasts and paedophiles have often found their niche within it, and their peccadilloes have been exposed in much of the greatest writing about education, from Captain Grimes in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall to Hector in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys.

Mowbray’s actions were nothing to do with the school itself, and the Head Master Simon Henderson’s comments that “There is a palpable sense of betrayal, coupled with shock and deep regret that we did not identify his offending earlier” seem an appropriate response to the crimes that took place.

It has been rather more controversial that Will Knowland, one of Eton’s English masters, or “beaks” in their parlance, has been fired for a rather more 21st century crime: insufficient wokery.

Knowland recorded a video of himself giving a lecture called “The Patriarchy Paradox”, in which he challenged currently accepted ideas of toxic masculinity, radical feminism and shifting roles of gender and sexuality, and argued that, rather than attempting to be ashamed of traditional ideas of the male and female roles in society, they should be celebrated and upheld.

It seems as if some of what Knowland did was unnecessarily and unprofessionally provocative

Whether or not viewers agreed with Knowland, it seems clear that the lecture, which was not shown to the pupils, was intended as a provocation and an instrument to inspire debate and argument. Given that one of Eton’s most treasured tenets is the right to free speech, Knowland presumably thought that he was doing something useful and worthwhile. Consciously or otherwise, he was following in the footsteps of another Old Etonian provocateur, George Orwell, and deliberately advancing a contemporary “modest proposal” in the hope of eliciting a response.

It certainly has done, but not in the way that he might have hoped for. Many others will fill their column inches, on The Critic and elsewhere, with animated discussion over the rights and wrongs of Knowland’s actions.

Speaking as an instinctive defender of free speech, it seems as if at least some of what he did subsequently was unnecessarily and unprofessionally provocative, making this a more nuanced issue than the initial reports have suggested. Nonetheless, what it has done, along with Mowbray’s conviction is to suggest that Eton, for so long one of the great bastions of English society, is an institution in a state of flux.

Whether Simon Henderson – “Trendy Hendy” as he has been nicknamed – will be able to follow in the footsteps of such predecessors as Tony Little and Eric Anderson and maintain the school’s standing in both Britain and the wider world, or if some severe reputational damage has been done, will remain to be seen.

Yet it is tempting to ask whether the whole institution of the public school, for centuries the bulwark of the English educational and social system, is starting to become unfit for purpose in the 21st century. Whether it involves great institutions casually selling off their rare and valuable books or Oxbridge colleges now openly (and legally) discriminating against the pupils coming from fee-paying schools, it seems as if the heyday of private education may have passed.

Most parents, who would once have considered making significant sacrifices in order to give their children the best start in life, are now wondering whether finding the equivalent of a year’s substantial salary per child, per annum is really worth it. The regrettable thing is not that state education has improved so dramatically as to make the choice a redundant one, but that parents face a choice between government-sanctioned league tables and exam pressure on the one hand, and individual institutions making progressively poorer choices for the boys and girls in their care, even as the fees rise to yet more dizzying heights.

I attended Winchester College, alma mater of Rishi Sunak amongst others, in the mid-nineties. As an institution, it was unremittingly conservative in its ethos, attitudes and approaches, so much so that, after Tony Blair’s victory in 1997, there were serious discussions about moving the school lock, stock and barrel to Switzerland, only returning when the taint of a Labour government was no longer upon the country.

Whether our public schools are the envy or shame of the world, they remain uniquely British

Boys who were found in bed with girls were expelled immediately, but boys found in bed with boys – a rather larger group – were often sent to live with the chaplain, presumably to find solace in spiritual reflection. Yet homophobia was not only rife amongst the pupils, but at least tacitly sanctioned by many of the teachers. I remember one English master, in most regards a wonderful man, teaching Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, and remarking, apropos of Seth’s portrayal of gay characters, that his own views on the matter “were rather like those of the Bible”. No wonder that the only one of my peers who was openly out was a Singaporean entrant into the sixth form, nor that, coming into the adolescent hothouse of a boys’ boarding school, he had a horrible time.

The worst part of it all was that, by the standards of my peers who attended private schools, Winchester was relatively enlightened when it came to personal development. Very little was compulsory, apart from lessons, and the abiding idea was that boys were trusted to be intelligent enough to follow their own interests and that, through conversation with their peers and masters, they would end up far more intellectually curious and agile than the average eighteen-year old boy upon leaving school. When I hear the horror stories from other ex-public school students, many of whom seem to have survived rather than enjoyed an experience that in many cases could best be summarised as hymns, football and bullying, I cannot help but feel glad that the system is being reformed, although firing the likes of Mr Knowland seems to be an exercise in breaking a butterfly upon a wheel.

It often seems as if barely a month goes by without some major school undergoing an existential scandal. The saga of Ampleforth is an excellent example, where it seems as if it will be forced to close unless it makes significant changes, and it seems to me that the long-cherished dream of the progressive (or jealous) Left – that private schools should be stripped of their charitable status and gradually absorbed into the state sector – has never been closer at hand than it is now. Schools cannot be run in a constant environment of scandal and chaos.

At a time when coronavirus has led many parents to ask why they should be paying astronomical fees for their sons and daughters to have lessons over Zoom (which is, admittedly, considerably more than most comprehensive schools were able to do), deep suspicion has sunk in about the perennial question of value for money, and arguments about culture wars and the prospect of children being molested or otherwise mistreated are doing little to alleviate their concerns.

It’s undeniably the case that pupils are more liberal and tolerant in their views on sexuality than in my day

The English concept of private education seems anomalous to most Europeans, where  local state-run schools are believed to be of a good standard, and where the only children who go to “public school” are seen as somehow needing to be removed from the mainstream. And while there are many excellent independent schools in America, such as Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and the Harvard-Westlake School in California (where well-heeled celebrities of film and music fame educate their children), there is no national tradition there in the same way that the “Vita Lampada, Floreat Etona, Manners Makyth Man” ethos has taken root in the national consciousness here. Whether our public schools are the envy or shame of the world, they remain uniquely British.

Many people despise private education, believing it to be unfair, divisive and snobbish, and they may well have a point. Yet there are also signs that institutions hundreds of years old may emerge into the 21st century in interesting and original fashions.

Many Etonians present and past, such as The Critic’s writer Francis Emerson, are rallying to Knowland’s defence, appalled by the idea that the school is stifling free speech in this fashion. It should be noted that Eton would not have wished to fire him unless his presence on the staff was felt to be truly untenable, if only from a logistical perspective; school timetables are fiendishly complex things and removing a master without warning during the term would make covering his classes nigh on impossible.

And while it is impossible to see what impact such national concerns as trans rights and the BLM protests have had on the privately educated so far, it’s undeniably the case that pupils are more liberal and tolerant in their views on sexuality than in my day.

When I visited a boys’ school a few years ago to give a talk, my host told me, apropos of nothing, that the enormously popular head boy was the first openly gay one they’d had. “It’s awful”, he sighed, not without amusement. “Everyone’s madly in love with him and they’re all fighting to be his boyfriend. It plays havoc with discipline.” I can only wonder what my old chaplain would have had to say about the matter.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover