Eton students set up private debating club to talk about ideas ‘forbidden’ in class, dismissed Master claims

Eton students set up a private debating club to talk about ideas that were “forbidden” in class due to the school’s “stifling monoculture”, a dismissed Master has claimed.

Pupils at the 580-year-old institution founded the secret discussion group in an attempt to “resist” the “drastic narrowing of debate” at the school, according to Will Knowland.

He alleged that his dismissal was “only the latest in a series of lustrations turning Eton into a stifling monoculture”.

The school has been engulfed in a free speech row following Mr Knowland’s dismissal for gross misconduct last year.

His video lecture, entitled the "Patriarchy Paradox", questioned "current radical feminist orthodoxy" and was part of the Perspectives course taken by sixth form students to encourage them to think critically about subjects of public debate.

But Mr Knowland was banned from giving the lecture to students and then sacked after a dispute over his refusal to remove it from his personal YouTube channel. Eton has maintained that the dismissal was "not a matter of free speech" but one of "internal discipline" and that the video fell foul of equality laws.  

Simon Henderson, the Head Master at the £42,500-a-year boarding school, said Eton makes "no apology" for teaching pupils to respect each other’s differences.  

Writing for The Spectator magazine, Mr Knowland said: “While the video has received views equivalent to more than 100 times the size of the Eton student body, it was the boys themselves who first came to my defence.”

He was referring to an open letter, signed by thousands of pupils and Old Etonians, which said they felt “morally bound not to be bystanders in what appears to be an instance of institutional bullying”.

Mr Knowland said that students “had already sensed the need to resist a drastic narrowing of debate in the schoolroom, which has reportedly led them to set up private debating groups to test viewpoints forbidden in class”. 

He disputed the school’s argument that his video breached equality laws,saying: "It was not new legislation I’d transgressed, just a new religion with an old-time zeal to suppress dissent and punish heresy.

"The College’s ‘approach to equality and diversity’ — which it finally claimed I had breached — has never been explained to staff, making it impossible to follow."  

Last month, an appeal panel ruled that Eton’s dismissal of Mr Knowland was justified with the Head Master saying that intellectual freedom "lies at the heart" of an Eton education.

Mr Knowland has previously said that he will take the school to an employment tribunal if the appeal panel upholds his dismissal, and he has so far crowdfunded more than £60,000 for potential legal fees.

He has also told his supporters that he may seek an Act of Parliament to reinstate him to his post by invoking an obscure branch of legislation that has not been used in more than 20 years.

An Eton spokesman said: "Mr Knowland’s dismissal was not a matter of freedom of speech, but was the outcome of a disciplinary hearing related to his repeated refusal to observe a reasonable request to temporarily remove his video lecture while Eton considered advice that its contents could well breach a number of the school’s policies as well as the school’s legal and regulatory responsibilities. Eton believes passionately in free speech.

"However, as in any school, there are limits to the freedoms that teachers have and there are professional obligations that must be respected."

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