It was always going to be a big ask to shift an institution such as Eton college – with its 580-year history, its wealth, power, privilege and funereal tailcoats – into the 21st century. But that was Simon Henderson’s pitch when he applied to be headmaster.
The pitch must have gone down well with the interview panel because in 2015, at the age of 39, Henderson became Eton’s youngest ever head. His ambition was to modernise, to make the exclusive Berkshire school more progressive, more inclusive and more relevant, as he explained in an interview with the Guardian.
He talked about wellbeing, mental health and emotional intelligence. In a subsequent interview, Henderson discussed the importance of “gender intelligence” and let slip that the current education offer at Eton included LGBT awareness and talks by the founder of the Everyday Sexism project, Laura Bates.
Five years later, Henderson finds himself caught in what has been described as a battle for the soul of Eton, fighting off a revolt among those who say the school is being taken in an “aggressively woke” direction while others praise his expansion of the bursary scheme, his social conscience and enlightened attitudes.
The school, which has educated 20 future prime ministers – including Boris Johnson – and charges annual fees of £42,500, is said to be “in meltdown”, with complaints, petitions and open letters flying around, aided and abetted by detailed daily coverage in the Daily Telegraph.
The row began with the suspension and subsequent dismissal of Will Knowland, a popular English teacher, who has been accused of gross misconduct after he allegedly refused to remove a lecture video about gender roles from his personal YouTube channel.
Knowland told the Telegraph that the video, entitled The Patriarchy Complex, was due to be shown as part of the school’s Perspectives course, taken by older students to encourage critical thinking. It was, he said, designed to make students aware “of a different point of view to the current radical feminist orthodoxy, which insists that there’s something fundamentally toxic about masculinity”.
The 30-minute video, which takes the form of a polemic narrated by Knowland and illustrated with film clips, cartoons and animal imagery, appears to argue that biological differences between men and women determine gender roles. It includes comments such as “biologically speaking the idea that men exert power over women is nonsense”, “male aggression is a biological fact” and “a world without men would be awful for women”.
There’s a violent clip from the Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas, and a section on rape, in which Knowland says: “Rape is not a unique claim for male oppression of women because male-on-male rape in jails dwarfs male-on-female rape outside them.”
The video was uploaded on the school intranet and shared with fellow teachers, one of whom complained. It was removed from the school site and never shown to students, but it remains on his Knowland Knows YouTube channel, where its viewing figures have rocketed to more than 76,000.
The college sought legal advice and was told that the lecture was not only in breach of equality legislation, but also contravened a number of the school’s legal and regulatory responsibilities. “The school made the reasonable request that the teacher remove the video pending further discussion, but despite multiple requests and then instructions he persistently refused to do so,” a spokesperson said.
For many at Eton and beyond it has become a battle against cancel culture, in defence of freedom of speech. Henderson has insisted neither he nor the college want to shut down debate, while Eton’s provost, William Waldegrave, has insisted it is a matter of internal discipline.
A petition protesting against Knowland’s dismissal has gathered more than 2,000 signatures, and a fighting fund has raised almost £55,000 to take the case to an employment tribunal if he loses his appeal next Tuesday.
But the row has opened up deep-seated fissures in the wider school community, where many oppose the progressive direction in which the school is being taken by its headmaster, known to his detractors as “trendy Hendy”.
This week, Dr Luke Martin, a theology master at the school, resigned from his post in charge of the Perspectives course in protest against the dismissal and took issue with the promotion of a “so-called progressive ideology” at the school, which he likened to religious fundamentalism.
After a week of bruising media coverage, Henderson’s supporters are starting to speak out. “Honestly, of the parents I’ve spoken to there is overwhelming support for Simon Henderson,” said one mother with two sons at the school. “Yes, he’s trying to make Eton a more tolerant, inclusive place and that’s what most of the parents want.”
The science writer and Old Etonian Michael Bond believes there’s a silent majority who support Henderson, and described those defending Knowland as “the death rattle of the old regime” who are terrified of their growing irrelevance.
“Simon Henderson is aware of how Eton should fit in with the world beyond its walls,” Bond said. “He wants to be in step with the world and not reflect an outdated, offensive-to-many school of thought which this video represents.”