Eton College head: our young men need to be more gender-intelligent

Simon Henderson says the school would support transgender pupils but it had not been faced with that particular situation

Pupils at Eton College need to be more “gender-intelligent” according to the headmaster, who indicated that any student at the all-male boarding school wishing to transition genders would be allowed to stay.

Simon Henderson, who took over the elite public school in 2015, told the Guardian that efforts to prepare its pupils for the modern world now included LGBT-awareness education and talks by the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, Laura Bates.

“I’m very keen that we are very aware that as an all-boys school there’s a responsibility for young men to be gender-intelligent,” he said.

Asked whether this extended to accepting transgender students at the £38,000-a-year school, Henderson said: “With any pastoral situation, we would support them in the best way we thought was appropriate for their particular circumstances.”

Eton College, which was founded by Henry VI in 1440, has educated the sons of the rich and powerful for more than five centuries, including 19 British prime ministers. Unlike many other schools, Eton has not yet been been required to accommodate a transgender pupil,” Henderson said. “We have not been faced with that particular situation. Conceivably they would stay if it was felt to be the right thing for them.”

With growing transgender awareness among young people, schools across the country have been trying to adapt, among them Brighton College, an independent co-educational day and boarding school, which has scrapped distinctions between girls’ and boys’ uniforms. Single sex schools have also successfully dealt with young people transitioning.

Arguably, Eton - with its tailcoats, boarding houses and idiosyncratic traditions - may find it harder than others to adapt. In addition to the 1,300-strong all-male student body, just 20 of the 180 teaching staff are women and there are no plans to admit girls.

To that end, Henderson is trying to build more meaningful links with girls’ schools. He wants to increase the number of female teachers, as well as ethnic diversity, and he emphasises the broad diversity of visiting speakers, among them an Old Etonian whose subject was coming out as gay while a pupil at the college.

Henderson made a robust defence of Eton’s record after it found itself at the centre of a national debate about access to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Last month, the former education minister David Lammy complained that Oxbridge made more offers to Eton alone than to students on free school meals across the entire country.

Between 80 and 100 boys from Eton win places to study at Oxbridge every year . In contrast, just 50 students eligible for free school meals from across the entire country got into Oxbridge in 2014-15.

Henderson, who was educated at another famous public school, Winchester College, and studied history at Brasenose, Oxford, said some of the most successful Eton candidates would themselves qualify for free school meals . Eton currently spends £7m on means-tested bursaries, with about a quarter of all boys receiving financial support, including 79 boys who last year paid no fees at all.

The headmaster stressed the contribution Eton makes to partner state schools, including its sponsorship of Holyport College, a state boarding school nearby in Berkshire, and the London Academy of Excellence, a highly selective state sixth form in east London which has become known as “the Eton of the East End” because of its success at getting pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds into Oxbridge. “It’s quite right Oxbridge should be trying to attract talented pupils from around the country, whatever their backgrounds, but it’s a decision for Oxbridge how they do their admissions,” said Henderson.

“I’m not embarrassed by the fact that 80-100 of our students get into Oxbridge every year. Any school would be proud of that. Of course I don’t want that figure to go down. But I don’t see how Eton lowering its standards would improve the life chances of other people.”

Henderson has had to weather a recent allegation of cheating at the school. During the summer, a senior member of staff was sacked for gross misconduct after he circulated questions from a forthcoming economics exam to other teachers.

The incident focused attention on the Pre-U exam - an alternative to A-levels popular in some independent schools but rarely used in the state sector - particularly when a second security breach came to light at another independent school, involving an art history exam. A number of Eton pupils were affected after they were emailed information in advance of sitting the paper.

The incidents have raised concerns because independent school teachers frequently act as chief examiners for Pre-U papers, allowing them advanced access to questions. However, Henderson rejected the suggestion that the Pre-U was any more vulnerable to abuse than any other qualification.

“It’s an opportune moment for all exam boards and all schools that have teachers involved in examining to look again at the processes and think about what checks and balances can be put in place. But I don’t think it’s specific to the Pre-U,” he said.

Henderson argues that Eton may appear unaltered with its old-fashioned uniforms, quirky games and bizarre lexicon, but underneath the surface it is changing inexorably. Like any other school, Eton has to deal with the modern challenges of drugs, social media and mental health difficulties.

“I want us to be a modern, forward-thinking, relevant school,” he said. “Eton has always subtly reinvented itself. But you have moments in an institution - and this is one of those moments - when it has to take a step forward.”


Sally Weale Education correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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