A piece by Nicola Woolcock, Education Editor, in today’s Times. The Education Editor at the Telegraph, too, is a women.
When Eddie Jones, the England rugby coach, was challenged at Eton to explain why he thought top players needed “manliness” to succeed, it seemed to some an innocent question.
But the anger it provoked encapsulates the culture war at the heart of the world’s most famous school, which has been riven in the past week with accusations that its head is forcing “wokeness” and feminism upon it.
The sacking of an English master, Will Knowland, who refused to remove a controversial video from YouTube, has caused a row over free speech and opened a window onto the school.
The Times has spoken to alumni, families and staff on both sides of the debate. Old boys have accused the head master of five years, Simon Henderson — who they nickname “Trendy Hendy” — of imposing politically correct obsessions upon Eton with initiatives on feminism, Black Lives Matter, the gender pay gap, decolonising the curriculum and transgender issues.
They say boys were encouraged to pose wearing waistcoats emblazoned with Black History Month slogans and participate in workshops organised by the Good Lad Initiative, at which one boy was apparently upset at having to pretend to “come out as straight”.They have seized upon the sacking of Mr Knowland — whose video used clips of violent films and included claims that more men were raped than women — as evidence of a crusade against free speech.
But The Times has also uncovered a backlash among younger staff and parents against the Old Etonian community. They are determined to support Mr Henderson, say the row has nothing to do with free speech and are incandescent that those who attended the school decades ago could harm the education of their children.One female staff member said the atmosphere at the school had again become “toxic” against boys who were in any way different in the past few weeks.
“Those who are upset about Simon Henderson’s changes tend to be older beaks. It’s the last bastion of white, middle-class privilege and power and they want to hold on to that. They feel hugely attacked. Some Old Etonians say to me that flogging never did them any harm — they have huge power still. They need to realise life has moved on, we’re in the 21st century.
“What Mr Henderson has done has been healthy and has improved the school — it’s easier for boys who are different — black, ethnic minority, Jewish, female staff. But in the last few weeks it’s gone backwards, boys sniggering when I speak, I’ve seen boys who are different being marginalised.”
She said some boys had been manipulated into signing a petition calling for Mr Knowland to be reinstated.
In the public imagination, Eton evokes visions of tailcoats and prime ministers but Mr Henderson has nailed his colours to the mast. Rather than proclaim its almost 600-year history and boast about its traditions, Eton’s website describes it as a “modern, forward-thinking school that embraces innovation” to provide a “progressive and well-rounded education”.
The leading message on Mr Henderson’s Twitter account relates to Black Lives Matter.
Some Old Etonians have told The Times that Mr Henderson is more concerned with promoting a “woke” image than focusing on what matters.
One said disquiet had been brewing over the past year and the sacking was a rallying point, adding: “There have been a number of incidents where people have been up in arms at the head master’s approach. Two other masters have been disciplined relating to political correctness issues.”
Parents fear at least one person connected with the old guard is manoeuvring against Mr Henderson with a view to taking his job in the long term.
One mother with more than one boy at the school said: “I know Eton is an institution but as far as we’re all concerned it is our children’s school. This is an issue about our children and the way they are taught — it’s very nice these men feel concerned about their old school but some left 20 or 40 years ago. Simon Henderson’s duty of care is to our children’s education, not to someone who went there decades ago. The parents feel very supportive of what Mr Henderson is doing with the school — if the worst thing you can say is that he’s making it more tolerant, inclusive and kind then three cheers to that.”
When parents saw Mr Knowland’s video they were incredulous, she said, particularly as his YouTube channel was used as a study resource by pupils of all ages. She said: “I’m happy for my child to be taught critical thinking but this doesn’t hold up to any academic rigour. If there are ways of challenging the feminist orthodoxy I’m not sure that’s a particularly good one.
“The idea that Eton boys are being indoctrinated in radical feminist orthodoxy is a joke. It’s not like they’re living in a feminist utopia.”
Some critics said Eddie Jones had been treated disrespectfully and chastised by a teacher for using the word “manliness” when a pupil asked what attributes were necessary to be a rugby player. One parent said: “A staff member embarrassed Eddie in front of the boys, saying she thought this an inappropriate word. Eddie behaved as a gentleman and let the moment go, but the night was soured. The boys were furious at such an open breach of the school’s tradition of intellectual hospitality.”
Another parent said Jones was politely asked to define manliness and that questioning of guests was an essential part of such events.
Eton did not wish to comment but in a letter sent to parents on Thursday, Mr Henderson denied that either he or Eton wanted to “shut down debate”. He said: “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. However, 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.”
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