Eton schoolboys in traditional tailcoats at Eton College boarding school, Berkshire, UK. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Spare the rod

Spoiled beaks and free thought at Eton

Artillery Row

Simon Henderson is the youthful headmaster of Eton. He is almost certainly the first of its 71 heads to have had a Twitter account. He uses it to endorse the causes close to his heart – he likes giving free Easter eggs to NHS keyworkers, he supports QPR football club, and he is very enthusiastic about Eton Pride. This does not mean the arrogance for which some Old Etonians are renowned – rather, “On International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia #IDAHOBIT it is so important that we work together to continue to make our schools ever more compassionate and inclusive communities which celebrate the uniqueness of all young people #IDAHOBIT.”

One of his less characteristic Tweets depicts a 15th century school master overseeing his pupils. It shows the crests of Eton and Winchester, and quotes one of King Solomon’s remarks from the Book of Proverbs – “Qui parcit virge odit filium”, the man who hates his son spares him the rod – and from Cicero’s De Officiis – “Cavendum ne maior poena quam culpa sit”, take care that the penalty is not greater than the fault, or, in the freer translation of The Mikado, let the punishment fit the crime.

Henderson’s language is that of the jargon-loving middle manager

Henderson was appointed in 2015 at the age of 39, rather younger than his predecessors, after serving as headmaster of Bradfield and deputy head of Sherborne. In the five years since then, he has set a reforming agenda. His language is that of the jargon-loving middle manager – in a recent fundraising appeal, he spoke of his ambition “to grow our network of partnership organisations in a major way”, and in the most recent Old Etonian Association Review, he wrote of “pupil outcomes”, where others might have said exam results. The cover of the Review has a picture of a bust of George Orwell, an Old Etonian, wearing a Covid facemask. Behind the bust is a text attributed to Orwell: “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.” In the preface to Animal Farm, he wrote that “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” One of Henderson’s masters, an English teacher called Will Knowland, has lost his job because he was too committed to telling people things they did not want to hear.

Boys between 16 and 17 (C block, in Eton language) have a series of lectures where they learn about different points of view on various ethical questions. The series is called “Perspectives”, and teachers have considered the criminalisation of abortion and the moral defence of the British Empire. Knowland wrote a lecture entitled The Patriarchy Paradox and articulated a traditional account of gender relations in which the male role is to protect, provide and procreate. He cited scholars who said patriarchy is a biological fact and a function of human nature, and expressed disagreement with the feminist academic Andrea Dworkin and her calls for a fluid androgynous identity. No doubt he knew these ideas would provoke a reaction – at the start he commented that what he would say “might bruise the feelings of some”, and cited Mill and Locke in defence of free speech. But stimulating debate was the whole point of Perspectives.

The lecture was shared among the teaching staff, one of whom complained about it. Henderson required Knowland to remove the lecture from the school’s internal video platform, and it was never shown to the boys. He took it down, but left it on his personal YouTube channel, Knowland Knows, despite his headmaster’s demands. For that he was subjected to a school disciplinary process and dismissed. He is appealing against the dismissal, and the appeal will be heard on Tuesday 8 December. Etonian gossip about Knowland’s treatment reached the ears of The Daily Telegraph’s education editor, and has been covered in that paper, The Times, Daily Mail, Daily Express and elsewhere under headlines such as “Eton College dismisses teacher amid free speech row” and “Eton is trampling on the freedom to think”.

At first, the school’s position when asked for comment was that:

Mr Knowland has chosen to publicise his version of events in advance of a disciplinary panel convened to hear his appeal against dismissal as a teacher at the College. Eton is fully aware of its obligations not to prejudice that appeal process and so will not be commenting before a final decision is reached by the panel.

After several days of unfavourable publicity, Henderson and Eton appear to have lost their nerve. On Friday 27 November, he summoned the 25 boys who are house captains to Election Hall on very short notice in order to brief them about Knowland. However, he explained that because of the ongoing disciplinary process he could not comment.

Unfortunately, in the same week a former geography teacher at Eton, Matthew Mowbray, was convicted on 15 counts relating to sexual activity with children, voyeurism and making indecent photographs. It was particularly troubling that for several years he had been a house master, and had used that position to commit his offences. Henderson was widely felt to have handled the affair as well as could have been expected. He praised the bravery of the complainants, complimented the Police and Children’s Services, and said that “…an open and transparent school culture is the key to keeping our children safe. This must be driven by the adults.” But his commitment to transparency did not last until the end of the week, and the house captains mocked his inconsistency.

Other boys have written a letter calling for the Provost to reinstate Knowland and started a petition to the same effect.

They praised Knowland’s “academic nuance and sensitivity” in his lecture, and accused the school of hypocrisy and a failure to protect individual freedom, asking “How can the school reasonably expect teachers to engage in the promotion of free thought inside and outside of the schoolroom when the consequence of overstepping some poorly-defined line of acceptability is to lose their livelihood and home? Is this not an abuse of power?” So far it has been signed by over 2,500 people.

In asserting that the dismissal was not about free speech, the statement suggested that the opposite was true

By Monday 1 December, Eton’s Provost Lord Waldegrave stepped in. He made a statement that the press narrative about free speech was “fake news”, emphasising the school’s commitment to open thinking: “Eton will never cancel debate.” Sadly, however, the school had received advice from a barrister that Knowland’s lecture was unlawful because of the Equality Act and the Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations, and Henderson had had no choice but to ask and then require that Knowland take the video down from his YouTube channel. Because he refused to do so, a Disciplinary Panel was convened, and it decided that Knowland’s conduct was gross misconduct and dismissed him.

The statement begs more question than it answers. Why was the school abandoning its sensible former position of not commenting pending the appeal? What was it about the “fake news” that made Waldegrave think he had to speak out? YouTube is still hosting the video, which has been viewed more than 88,000 times – does it consider the lecture was illegal, or contrary to its hate speech policy and community guidelines? Had the school shared its legal advice with YouTube? Given that Waldegrave is of course committed to free speech, presumably he must think laws that infringe his masters’ ability to teach freely are unwise, and should want them to be repealed?

Lord Waldegrave wanted to establish that the dismissal was not about free speech, but for disobeying a reasonable instruction from Henderson. He said “The panel expressly stated it would not have dismissed the master for the lesson content alone”. But the word alone implies that Eton would have disciplined Knowland for the lesson content, albeit that the punishment might have been less than dismissal – perhaps suspension, demotion or docking of wages. In asserting that the dismissal was not about free speech, the statement suggested that the opposite was true.

When he made the statement, Waldegrave was due to chair Knowland’s appeal against dismissal. Speaking like this in support of Henderson would very strongly indicate that he had made his mind up about the appeal in advance, which would make the procedure unfair, the dismissal unlawful, and expose Eton to paying compensation to Knowland.

Henderson’s desire for Eton to be seen as a progressive institution is at odds with its traditions

The school gets its legal advice from Farrers, the famously discreet firm of solicitors who for many years acted for the Queen. It is hard to imagine that they would have allowed a client to make a blunder like this, and so one wonders if the school failed to take advice before making the statement, or whether it did and simply ignored the advice. The author of this piece contacted Lord Waldegrave’s secretary by email to ask these questions. Courteous acknowledgments were received from the Provost and Justin Nolan, the Director of Development, but no substantive answers were given to any of the questions.

Waldegrave has now agreed not to chair Knowland’s appeal, and instead it will be heard by Dr Andrew Gailey, the Vice Provost. He is a smooth Anglo-Irishman who taught history at the school for over 30 years and in the late 90s was Prince William’s housemaster. If anyone can provide a safe pair of hands, it should be him.

Other teachers have expressed their concerns. Dr Luke Martin, a teacher of theology, resigned from his role as the master in charge of Perspectives. He has written a letter to Gailey in support of Knowland.

He is worried that Eton promotes a progressive ideology which is comparable to religious fundamentalism and uses indoctrination. It purports to be tolerant and inclusive, but in fact is anything but – “if you disagree with it, you’re excluded; if you think differently, you’re not tolerated; and if you raise objection, you’re mocked or face formal discipline.” He says Knowland’s dismissal has demoralised the other teachers, who fear that speaking their mind risks dismissal.

Knowland has other supporters. He has enlisted the help of the Free Speech Union, an organisation founded by Toby Young which campaigns for the speech rights of all, irrespective of their political standpoint. There is a fundraising page to raise money to pay his legal fees if his appeal fails and he has to take the case to an Employment Tribunal. So far, he has raised £54,000 from over 1,000 donors. The donations are anonymous, but they probably come from boys and their parents who think Knowland is right and Henderson is wrong. Anyone who wishes to help Eton with Farrers’ fees and any award of damages can contact the Bursar.

There is nothing modern about a school whose uniform was adopted in mourning for George III

The timing is particularly bad – in May 2020, Henderson announced Eton 2020, the school’s vision for a grand response to the Covid pandemic. In interviews with The Times and the BBC, he explained that he wanted to shed the school’s elitist image and spend at least £100,000,000 on good causes – bursaries, expanding its free digital study course EtonX, expanding its range of partnerships, and working with government on new sixth form schools. This is to be paid for from the school’s endowment, and “generous families”, who already pay over £42,000 a year for one son’s education. But not all parents feel very generous.

One Eton father, who for his son’s sake preferred not to be named, said that eyebrows were raised because it was felt that during the first lockdown, when the boys were away from the school, Henderson’s focus should have been on his pupils, not on grandiose projects.

Unfortunately for the school and for the Eton 2020 fundraising effort, the affair has not made a favourable impression on its benefactors – it has been reported that at least one potential donor, Nigel McNair Scott, has threatened to write Eton out of his will. Others are likely to be sceptical, and the inept management of Knowland may make parents and others less generous.

Prospective parents are also unimpressed. Becky Walsh advises clients on school choices and Oxbridge applications. Many of them are having second thoughts; in their eyes, “Eton is having an identity crisis.” Some think that the school has to make up its mind up about what its values are. Henderson’s desire for it to be seen as a modern, socially aware and progressive institution is at odds with its traditions and the exclusive language of beaks and divs, in the bill and sent up for good, and the fact that it is one of the few remaining all boys boarding school.

There is nothing very modern about a school where the uniform was adopted in mourning for the death of George III in 1820, and has not changed much since, nor is there much sense in trying to be. Walsh adds, “If parents want co-ed, relaxed, free-from-uniform, flexi-boarding, there are plenty of schools to choose from out there. The glorious thing about the UK school system is that there are real choices. Eton is excitingly unique, and I hope it doesn’t lose sight of its great differentiating qualities.”

One suspects Henderson rarely sees a bandwagon that he doesn’t want to jump on to

Henderson’s concerns and tone seem modish and transient for the successor to figures like Sir Robert Birley, who before he became Eton headmaster in 1947 was responsible for reconstructing German education at the end of the Second World War and purging it of Nazi racial theory. His persona can come across like that of a woke Liberal Democrat councillor – he might make Eton a Fairtrade school, or declare a climate emergency in the Thames Valley. Whether or not one supports his preferred causes, it is unclear why a man responsible for educating 1,270 sons of the elite feels the need to adopt public postures about his love for the NHS. One suspects he rarely sees a bandwagon that he doesn’t want to jump on to.

Henderson was certainly put in a difficult position, having to mediate between one teacher expressing controversial views and another who was sufficiently offended by them to complain. The state of the law is unsatisfactory, and it is unclear if this lecture was unlawful (Eton did not respond to questions about its legal advice), although the chances of the offended teacher making a successful claim against the school seem small.

The Free Speech Union wants to reform the law so that teachers would have legal protection for expressing controversial views. Its founder Toby Young said:

I don’t think the framers of the Equality Act intended it to be invoked to suppress debate, and there is a caveat to that effect in the supplementary notes. But it is drafted so that it can be interpreted in the way it has been in the Eton case, suppressing the expression of points of view that some members of protected groups find disagreeable. The way forward, I think, is to amend it, making it crystal clear that it cannot be used to silence people who dissent from woke orthodoxy, either in schools, universities or the workplace. The Free Speech Union is looking for an MP who’d be willing to propose a two-line bill to that effect.

Any sympathy for Henderson should be tempered by the fact that he has not attempted any compromise. The teacher who complained might have been offered the opportunity to respond to the lecture, or Knowland might have been invited to present his lecture differently, giving a sympathetic summary of the feminist view before challenging it. None of these steps were taken, nor was anything else done to resolve what should have been just a disagreement between two colleagues, rather than the fighting of a culture war.

Knowland could now position himself as the Jordan Peterson of school masters

The endgame is approaching. If Knowland’s appeal fails, he will lose his job and his house. For that to happen a few weeks before Christmas to a man with a wife and 5 children would be a catastrophe. However, the support he has received from boys and parents may well create new opportunities for him, in teaching and elsewhere. He now has a considerable online profile, and he could position himself as the Jordan Peterson of school masters, unafraid to articulate unfashionable and traditional views, and with a Patreon account for his supporters to pay into.

If Knowland wins his appeal, he should get his job back. This would undermine Henderson’s authority, perhaps irreversibly. It would not be easy for him to reassert himself, either to teachers, parents or senior boys who have already shown a willingness to mock him.

Kenneth Rose recorded in his journals that when Anthony Chevenix-Trench retired as Eton headmaster in 1970, Harold MacMillan suggested his successor should be someone in holy orders– “if he does not do very well, he can always be made a bishop.” This sage advice will not help Henderson, who is not a clergyman. Without a conveniently available diocese it is not obvious where he can go from here. In being made Eton’s headmaster in his late 30s, he achieved a professional peak, from which it is likely that the only way is down.

On Tuesday 8 December, the eyes of the school and its wider community will be on Andrew Gailey and whether he decides to spare Knowland the rod. Henderson may discover that he is stuck between a woke and a hard place.


John Jolliffe is a barrister in independent private practice. He was a boy at Eton in the 1990s, and supports free speech and the Free Speech Union. One day, he will be a patriarch too.

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