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Eton College head denies stifling debate after teacher's dismissal

Sally Weale and Simon Murphy
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The head of Eton College, which is at the centre of a bitter row over free speech following the dismissal of a teacher, has written to parents defending intellectual freedom and denying that he wants to shut down debate at the school.

In an email to the parents of all 1,300 pupils Simon Henderson said he could not comment on an ongoing disciplinary matter but he rejected any suggestion that the school was trying to stifle debate.

He said he believed passionately that students should learn to think for themselves, and he stressed the importance of independent thinking and intellectual freedom, which he said were “non-negotiable”.

Eton College, which was founded in 1440 by Henry VI, is caught up in a dispute over the dismissal of an English teacher, Will Knowland, who was accused of gross misconduct in connection with a video lecture entitled the Patriarchy Paradox, about masculinity and gender roles.

Knowland’s supporters have said the dispute is about free speech, but the provost of Eton, William Waldegrave, insisted it was a matter of internal discipline after Knowland allegedly refused to remove the video from his YouTube channel following complaints about the content. Knowland is appealing against his dismissal at a hearing next week.

It is the first time the headteacher has spoken publicly on the matter. In his letter to parents, Henderson said he was writing after a week in which he had seen a number of stories in the media suggesting that Eton wanted to shut down debate. He wrote: “It does not and neither do I.”

He added: “I went into teaching because I believe in the values of a liberal education and the importance of independent thinking and intellectual freedom. Eton’s same belief in these values inspired me during my eight years as a teacher here from 2001 and were a key reason why I was so proud to return as headmaster in 2015.

“In the world that our children are facing, I believe passionately that our pupils must learn to think for themselves rather than waiting to be told what to think. To suggest that I believe otherwise is simply not true.”

Henderson continued: “I also want boys and staff to feel comfortable being who they are and to treat each other’s differences with understanding, tolerance and mutual respect. Eton makes no apology for teaching our pupils about the importance of these things.”

The row has caused widespread disquiet in the Eton community. According to the Telegraph, which broke the story, more than 2,000 signatures have been collected from current and former pupils who oppose the dismissal, describing it as a “gross abuse of the duty of the school to protect the freedoms of the individual”.

There is also disquiet among staff. Most recently, Dr Luke Martin, who teaches divinity at Eton, wrote to the vice-provost calling for Knowland to be reinstated. In his letter he expressed concern at the promotion of “a so-called progressive ideology at the school”, likening it to “religious fundamentalism”.

Earlier on Thursday the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, called for girls to be allowed in to Eton after reluctantly being drawn into the argument over Knowland’s dismissal.

Williamson was taking part in an interview about plans for next year’s school exams on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, when he was asked for his views on the Eton dispute.

He has made free speech in universities a priority but has refused to comment on the row, volunteering instead that it would be a good step forward if the £42,000-a-year school altered its admissions policy to allow girls to attend.

“I would be very much in favour of Eton taking girls,” he said. “I think that would be a good step forward.”

Eton has been boys-only throughout its 580-year history and it could remain that way. Responding to the education secretary’s comments, a spokesperson for the college said: “Eton has no plans to go co-educational.”

Twenty UK prime ministers have been educated at Eton, the most recent being Boris Johnson. Asked if he would be in favour of girls being admitted, Johnson’s official spokesman said on Thursday: “We have said consistently that single-sex schools are an important part of our diverse education system and it’s right that parents have the opportunity to make decisions about the type of school that their children attend.”

Pressed on whether that meant the prime minister did not think girls should be admitted, the spokesman said: “If Eton were to choose to become a mixed-sex school we would obviously support that decision, but … it’s a matter for Eton as an independent school to set their own admission criteria.”

Another Old Etonian, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, took the opposite view to Williamson, who attended Raincliffe comprehensive [now community] school in Scarborough. Rees-Mogg told MPs: “Much though I might like my own daughter to go there I think it works very well as it is, thank you very much.”