Eton provost will not rule on master's dismissal after backing headmaster in free speech row

Camilla Turner
·4-min read
Lord Waldegrave - Roger Harris
Lord Waldegrave - Roger Harris

Eton College's provost recused himself from the appeal panel considering the dismissal of a master embroiled in a free speech row after publicly backing the school’s headmaster.

Baron Waldegrave of North Hill announced on Monday night that he was standing down from his role as chair of the appeal panel, saying it was "inappropriate" for him to continue following his intervention.

On Monday, he wrote to parents insisting that a teacher was sacked for his refusal to remove a video of his lecture from the internet rather than the contents of the lecture itself. 

Lord Waldegrave claimed Will Knowland was dismissed for his "repeated refusal to follow reasonable instruction".

The life peer and former Tory Cabinet minister said the master's dismissal was "not about free speech within the law" but was a "matter of internal discipline".

Last week, The Telegraph revealed that Mr Knowland was dismissed for gross misconduct after recording a lecture which questioned "current radical feminist orthodoxy". The lecture was part of the Perspectives course taken by older students to encourage them to think critically about subjects of public debate.

Mr Knowland alleged that he was banned from delivering the lecture to pupils and then dismissed after he refused to remove a video of the lecture from his personal YouTube channel. He is appealing against the headmaster's decision to sack him, and the hearing is due to be held next week.

Will Knowland
Will Knowland

On Monday, he insisted that he had been fired over the video's contents and claimed the head master said he was bringing the school into disrepute.

"By denying boys the opportunity to watch the video, and make up their own minds, the instruction seemed to be censorious," he said in a letter sent to the Eton community. "I made a stand for my freedom to express information but also for the boys' freedom to receive it."

Lord Waldegrave stepped down from the appeal panel after members of the Old Etonian Association called for him to go. One member said it was "astonishing" that he had "so publicly made his bias known" ahead of the appeal hearing.

He admitted he had been wrong to claim that the contents of the lecture at the heart of the free speech row played no role at all in the master's sacking.

Writing to parents on Sunday evening, Lord Waldegrave said Mr Knowland would not have lost his job "for the lesson content alone" but that it was his "repeated refusal" to follow the headmaster's instructions that led to him being fired.

However, on Monday morning he wrote to parents again to apologise and say this was "incorrect". He added that in fact it "might well have been possible" for Mr Knowland to have been sanctioned rather than fully dismissed over the lecture's content.

The £42,500-a-year school  has said it was left with "no choice" but to ask Mr Knowland to remove the video from the internet as it fell foul of equality laws. 

Supporters of Mr Knowland pointed out that the Equality Act contains a specific provision about its use in schools which states that "nothing in this chapter applies to anything done in connection with the content of the curriculum".

The Equality and Human Rights Commission published a briefing note in 2019 about the Equality Act and its application in schools which says that they "are not restricted in the range of issues, ideas and materials you use in your syllabus and will have the academic freedom to expose students to a range of thoughts and ideas, however controversial".

Toby Young, the general secretary of the Free Speech Union, which is supporting Mr Knowland, said the case "is and always has been about free speech". He added that the dispute is over the purpose of a good education and whether it is to "equip children with the knowledge and skills to think through the big questions facing our society or to just teach them the 'correct' view".

An Eton College spokesman said: "Given the Provost has publicly explained the school's position, he felt it inappropriate to stand as chair of the appeal panel. In line with our procedures, the vice provost will now take his place.

"In terms of the clarification letter, this was a drafting error, an apology was issued and it was corrected as soon as possible."