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This week, Eton has found itself the subject of immense media scrutiny after it dismissed a teacher for posting a “controversial” video on Youtube.

Titled “The Patriarchy Paradox”, it was created and narrated by Will Knowland, an English teacher at the school, who made strong statements about the role of men and women in society, and challenged the fashionable notion that differences between the sexes are “socially constructed”.

Knowland’s 33-minute online lecture was intended for Eton’s “Perspectives” curriculum, designed to spark debate, although he seemed to cause something of a fire.

According to Lord Waldegrave, Provost of Eton College, who has since defended the dismissal of Knowland in the national press, the following events took place:

  • Simon Henderson, Eton’s headmaster, received complaints about the video;
  • there were suggestions that it broke the Equality Act and the Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations;
  • the school then consulted an independent barrister, who said “that this was indeed so”;
  • Henderson asked and then instructed Knowland to temporarily take the video down while “a way forward could be explored”
  • Knowland refused to do this on six occasions;
  • after further investigations, including a panel hearing, it was decided that Knowland’s “persistent refusal to accept a reasonable – indeed inevitable – instruction from the Head Master in such an important matter amounted to gross misconduct which should result in dismissal.”

No doubt the school hoped the matter would be resolved after that. But Knowland has since started a crowdfunder to challenge his dismissal, which has raised tens of thousands of pounds.

He has the support of the Free Speech Union, and Eton pupils, who have written a strongly worded letter to Waldegrave, citing their “grave” concerns about free speech. A total of 2,100 from the Eton community have called for Knowland’s reinstatement and there are reports that alumni will stop donations to the school if it does not do this.

And so, Eton has something of a rather messy time ahead, all the while Knowland’s video has done rather well out of the debacle (picking up 68,000 views at the time of writing).

But who is right on this matter, morally and legally? And what does it mean for wider society?

The first thing to say is that it’s not obvious what Eton’s legal team found to be in breach of the Equality Act. Knowland bulldozes his way into the topic of gender differences, and makes contentious statements, such as “regarding the vote, women have always had it at the local level“. But is it any more shocking than the other opinions that Knowland tries to counter? Would a radical feminist, for example, be subjected to the same rules for accusing men of “toxic masculinity”? I think we all know the answer.

John Bald, a former Ofsted inspector and Chairman of the Conservative Education Society from 2018-2020, tells me that he cannot see anything in Knowland’s video that could make it an offence. “He is not harassing or discriminating against anyone, and neither is the school. It is not presenting his views as fact”.

A solicitor in The Times suggests part of the issue might down to the age of the pupils, saying: “Children might not be able to distinguish [views that society found unacceptable].” Doing nothing could have left the school open to an investigation from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.” But anyone watching Knowland’s video would struggle to see how pupils need to be shielded from it.

Knowland’s main “crime” seems to be advancing the position that men and women are neurologically different, which – I should reiterate, was designed to provoke debate (and has certainly fulfilled that function). Even so, it is strange that this causes so much controversy given that it is supported by a huge amount of evidence. As a psychology graduate, I have experienced first hand the censoriousness and denial around this topic, so it doesn’t surprise me that Knowland has caused offence. But it does ask big questions of the Equality Act, and whether it needs to be changed, if it is now illegal to say men and women are different.

Deep down I suspect part of the reason Eton fired Knowland was fear about wider societal backlash. In another part of the Etonian students’ letter, they accuse the school of “seeking to protect its new image as politically progressive at the expense of one of its own”, which appears to rather hit the nail on the head. In a world where Etonian politicians are constantly derided for their privilege, is it any wonder the school wants to project a more morally conscious image? So much so that is now overreacts over the idea of innate gender differences.

In doing so, Eton has not made matters easier for itself. It has, in fact, found itself inadvertently thrown into the culture wars, inviting questions about whether it is yet another institutional victim of wokeness. In truth, what happens next, from whether Knowland wins his case to the school’s principles on what opinions are acceptable, has huge implications for us all.

70 comments for: An Eton mess

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