Eton provost Lord Waldegrave defends teacher sacking amid 'sexist' row

‘It’s not about free speech… it’s about internal discipline’: Eton College’s provost defends sacking of teacher who ‘SIX times’ refused to take down video of ‘sexist’ lecture – as 1,000 petition to reinstate him

  • Freedom of speech row erupted at elite school following Will Knowland sacking 
  • More than 1,000 children so far signed a petition calling for his reinstatement
  • Claims he was subject to ultimate censorship over planned feminist lecture

Eton last night defended its decision to sack an English teacher following a dispute over a lecture.

A freedom of speech row erupted at the elite £42,500-a-year school after pupils revolted following the sacking of Will Knowland.

More than 1,000 children have so far signed a petition calling for his reinstatement amid claims he was subject to the ultimate censorship over the planned lecture in which he was due to question ‘current radical feminist orthodoxy’.

A freedom of speech row erupted at the elite £42,500-a-year school after pupils revolted following the sacking of Will Knowland (pictured)

The lecture was posted on Mr Knowland’s personal YouTube channel, but not delivered to pupils as he intended.

Addressing the issue for the first time, Eton provost Lord Waldegrave, who is chairman of the school’s governing body, said matters had been distorted, insisting: ‘Eton will never cancel debate.’

The former Tory Cabinet minister defended the 580-year-old school’s record on free speech. 

He said two barristers had found that the lecture on Mr Knowland’s YouTube channel broke equality law and regulations governing independent schools.

Eton provost Lord Waldegrave, (pictured) who is chairman of the school’s governing body, said matters had been distorted, insisting: ‘Eton will never cancel debate’

The peer said Eton was left with no choice after Mr Knowland allegedly refused six times to remove it while a solution was found, and he was dismissed for gross misconduct – a decision that is now under appeal.

The provost said: ‘Eton now, as in the past, is a school which prides itself on encouraging open-minded, independent and critical thinking.

‘Boys are encouraged to think about and discuss challenging topics. Eton will never cancel debate. Everyone accepts, including the teacher concerned, that such freedom cannot be absolute.’

The lecture, entitled The Patriarchy Paradox, would have been delivered as part of a course taken by older pupils to encourage critical thinking.

The English master, who has taught at Eton for nine years, suggested that science and history offer evidence that masculine virtues, such as strength and courage, can be beneficial to women, families and society.

In a detailed letter to the Eton community last week, Mr Knowland said: ‘The Head Master [Simon Henderson] felt that some of the ideas put forward in my lecture – such as the view that men and women differ psychologically and not all of those differences are socially constructed – were too dangerous for the boys to be exposed to.

More than 1,000 children have signed a petition calling for his reinstatement amid claims he was subject to the ultimate censorship (pictured: Eton headmaster Simon Henderson) 

‘I explained to the Head Master that I wasn’t endorsing all the ideas in my lecture, but I wanted the boys to be made aware of a different point of view to the current radical feminist orthodoxy.’

The school, whose old boys include princes William and Harry, PM Boris Johnson and author George Orwell, was accused of being ‘heartless and merciless’ in its treatment of Mr Knowland and of ‘prioritising emotional safety over intellectual challenge’.

But Lord Waldegrave told the Mail that such suggestions were pushing a ‘false narrative’ and the decision to part company related to Mr Knowland’s refusal to accept ‘internal discipline’.

He stressed: ‘When the Head Master received complaints about this particular video, there were suggestions that it broke the Equality Act and the Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations.

‘An independent barrister was consulted who said, in a written opinion, that this was indeed so.’

Lord Waldegrave said Mr Knowland was asked to remove the video – which was ‘clearly identified with Eton’ – from his YouTube channel. 

He added: ‘The Head Master proposed a temporary removal while a way forward could be explored. The master, on six occasions, refused to do this.’

The former Tory Cabinet minister defended the 580-year-old school’s record on free speech (pictured: Central courtyard of Eton College) 

The peer said Mr Knowland was dismissed for a ‘persistent refusal to accept a reasonable – indeed inevitable – instruction’ following an internal investigation.

Lord Waldegrave insisted: ‘I think it right to make clear what the issue is. It is not about free speech within the law, behind which Eton stands four-square.

‘It is about a matter of internal discipline, quite properly now subject to appeal.’ Mr Knowland, whose wife Rachel is a former singer who made it to the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent, has set up a fundraising page to help bring a case to an employment tribunal. 

He has raised more than £14,600 from over 360 well-wishers. On his fundraising website, the father-of-five wrote: ‘I have been dismissed from my employment. My wife and I will be made homeless along with our children.’

Explaining his refusal to remove the video from YouTube, he said: ‘Because I believe passionately in free speech, I said I would only take it down if given a clear reason, which is how I ended up being dismissed.’

Last night, the video – uploaded in September – was still on YouTube and had been viewed more than 28,000 times. 

The petition against his sacking said: ‘There is a sense that by dismissing Mr Knowland the school is seeking to protect its new image as politically progressive at the expense of one of its own.’

Tory MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown warned of the danger ‘of telling people what they should think rather than allowing them to make up their own opinions’.

Professor Steven Pinker, a psychology expert at Harvard in the US, said: ‘For a teacher to be fired for discussing findings backed by scientific evidence – even if they are controversial and some may prove to be mistaken – is an assault on the values that every educational institution should hold dear.’

We will never cancel debate at this school

By Lord Waldegrave, provost of Eton College 

Recently, a false narrative has been circulating in the national – and even international – media about Eton. Someone might even say it was fake news.

The narrative is that a teacher has been sacked for preparing a video lecture about radical feminist doctrines on gender which put forward an alternative viewpoint for discussion by boys.

It is alleged that he was sacked for having the temerity to articulate such views. This is false.

Eton now, as in the past, is a school which prides itself on encouraging open-minded, independent and critical thinking.

Boys are encouraged to think about and discuss challenging topics. This happens in the classroom every day and in a wide variety of lectures given both by Eton’s own teachers, and by outside visitors.

In the last few years visiting speakers have ranged from the Secretary of the Communist Party of GB to my late friend Sir Roger Scruton; from, indeed, radical feminists to far different voices.

After one spirited and argumentative meeting a distinguished professor visiting from California told me that he doubted such debate could have taken place there without complaint. 

I am proud of that, as are we all at Eton, and we do not intend to put that tradition at risk. Eton will never cancel debate.

But everyone accepts, including the teacher concerned, that such freedom cannot be absolute. Eton has exactly the same duties under the law as any other school.

When the Head Master received complaints about this particular video, there were suggestions that it broke the Equality Act and the Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations.

An independent barrister was consulted who said, in a written opinion, that this was indeed so. 

At this point the Head Master had absolutely no option other than to relay the legal advice received and ask, and then instruct, the master to take down the YouTube video, which was (with permission from the school) clearly identified with Eton.

The Head Master proposed a temporary removal while a way forward could be explored.

The master, on six occasions, refused to do this.

A disciplinary investigation by another barrister (who took the same view as the first about the law and the regulations) led to a panel hearing by three very experienced and senior teachers, at which the Head Master appeared as a witness.

They heard the evidence and determined that the master’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. 

Whether or not that decision was correct is now subject to appeal. In the normal course of events, I would not comment before such an appeal was heard.

In this case, because a false and potentially damaging narrative has reached the media, I think it right to make clear what the issue is.

It is not about free speech within the law, behind which Eton stands four-square. It is about a matter of internal discipline, quite properly now subject to appeal.

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