As we approach Christmas after this most challenging of years, families are looking forward to a precious bit of downtime; some welcome — if short-lived — respite from the horrors of the pandemic.
But for one family, the festive cheer will be somewhat muted. Will and Rachel Knowland, together with their five children ranging in ages from 14 to a still breastfeeding ten-month-old, are about to be evicted from their home in the grounds of Britain’s most famous public school. And all, they claim, for daring to stand up for free speech.
Will Knowland is the Eton English teacher fired for refusing to remove a lecture entitled ‘The Patriarchy Paradox’ from his YouTube channel, in which he questions ‘current radical feminist orthodoxy’ and rails against erosion of male identity and traditional gender roles.
Some — including the College’s headmaster Simon Henderson and an anonymous female colleague — found aspects of his argument (which, there is no denying, is very strong meat) objectionable, and as a result he was asked to take down the video, which he summarily refused to do.
Will Knowland (pictured) is the Eton English teacher fired for refusing to remove a lecture entitled ‘The Patriarchy Paradox’ from his YouTube channel
He was then fired for gross misconduct. Knowland duly challenged the head’s decision on the grounds of free speech, and the argument spilled out into the wider world, dividing opinion and provoking a heated debate both online and in the Press between those who believe that Knowland is a champion for intellectual freedom and those who think he is just a bit of a sexist pig and a provocateur who likes the attention.
I’ve watched Knowland’s lecture, and there are aspects of it which are frankly bonkers; nevertheless the overall message is intriguing, and, while I might not agree with all of it, I can see the basic subject — the question of masculinity in the modern world — is an important one, especially in the context of a boys’ school. Indeed, of all schools.
In his defence, Knowland claimed his YouTube channel is a private matter and therefore the choice of content is his own, and in keeping the video up (it is still there) he was not deliberately questioning the authority of the school, but merely exercising his right to free speech. His argument is that the talk was devised as part of a debating exercise for pupils, hence the challenging nature of the content.
The couple’s youngest two were born after Will took up his post at Eton in 2012, after working at the Towers School in Ashford, Kent. That was also the year Rachel (pictured) appeared on Britain’s Got Talent, reaching the semi-final stage
As he explained to me when I spoke to him on the phone on Tuesday, the whole point was to provoke, to encourage the boys to develop arguments for and against — in his view an important part of the character development of students. ‘I even invited colleagues to counter my arguments,’ he says. ‘But because of the reaction of the headmaster, no one would dare to engage.’
Unfortunately for him, his defence has fallen on deaf ears. On Monday, an internal Eton appeal panel delivered their verdict and, in language as dry and unforgiving as the Kalahari desert, explained their reasons for upholding the headmaster’s decision.
As a result, the family faces Christmas under a cloud of uncertainty. Knowland is the sole provider for Rachel and the children. Contrary perhaps to public perception about Eton and those associated with it, he and his wife do not come from money, and he is doing his best to make ends meet through online tutoring.
Childhood sweethearts Rachel and Will met at school when they were teenagers. Such is Will’s passion for education that their former history teacher even officiated at their wedding. Rachel gave birth to their first child, Sienne, at the age of 19. Another daughter, Amelie, and a son, Jude, followed in quick succession.
The couple’s youngest two were born after Will took up his post at Eton in 2012, after working at the Towers School in Ashford, Kent.
That was also the year Rachel appeared on Britain’s Got Talent, reaching the semi-final stage and wowing both judges and public with her talent and quiet charm.
They have until March to find alternative accommodation and work, and with no significant source of income and the stigma attached to the circumstances of his dismissal, they are understandably very anxious. Rachel is particularly worried.
Will and Rachel Knowland, together with their five children ranging in ages from 14 to a still breastfeeding ten-month-old, are about to be evicted from their home in the grounds of Britain’s most famous public school
Not just as a mother of five, one of whom is autistic; but also as a wife who has had to watch her husband — a man she describes as the most inspirational and kind father to their three daughters — being cast as a sexist, woman-hating brute.
When I spoke to her last Sunday, she told me she was especially upset by a newspaper article describing her husband’s lecture as ‘the purest, filthiest stream of untreated misogyny I’ve heard since Donald Trump’. She felt it — and many similar views expressed — was a complete misrepresentation, and wanted to put the record straight.
Over the course of the following days, we kept in touch, as Will attended his disciplinary hearing and then as they waited nervously for the results. As she put it during one of our conversations: ‘I just want to show the world that Will is not some sexist monster, but a loving father and husband who is raising three strong young women.’
‘He adores his girls, and this idea that he hates women is just so wrong. He’s brilliant with them, spends so much time building their confidence and character. And he’s so respectful of women in general. Honestly, he’s not remotely as he’s been portrayed.
‘That lecture was designed to provoke, the whole point of it was to elicit a response, to open up a topic for debate. He doesn’t think those things, it’s just an academic exercise. I just want people to see that about him, to see the Will I know.’
She was also extremely worried that some may want to see her husband barred from teaching for good. The profession, she told me, is his calling, and to be barred from it would be a devastating blow from which he might not recover.
The anguish of this woman, in seeing the man she clearly loves very much being assailed from all sides, is palpable. On a human level, I feel very sorry for her. As someone married to a person in the public eye whose motives and actions are constantly maliciously misinterpreted, I understand how she feels. It is heartbreaking to see someone you care about going through such agonies, and feeling largely powerless to do anything about it.
On Monday, an internal Eton appeal panel delivered their verdict and, in language as dry and unforgiving as the Kalahari desert, explained their reasons for upholding the headmaster’s decision (file image shows the central courtyard of Eton College)
Rachel is not immune to the vicissitudes of life in the public spotlight. After her exit from BGT, Simon Cowell offered to manage her career as a singer. But she turned him down.
‘I know plenty of people out there would not agree with my choices in life,’ she told me, ‘but I felt being a wife and mother was every bit as important as having my own career.’ And so she passed over the chance of stardom in favour of her family.
She seems completely content in the choices she has made. Her home is a happy clatter of children, her days revolving around teenage tantrums and baby bedtimes.
In fact, she is in many ways the poster girl for one of the assertions her husband makes in that now-infamous video, that men are programmed to procreate, protect and provide, and in so doing they are not oppressing the female of the species, but elevating her to a higher purpose, that is to say the raising of children and the future of the species.
Again, it is not a view I necessarily share; but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the merits of such an opinion.
Rachel clearly feels a deep love and loyalty for her husband, and seeing him in her eyes traduced in this way has brought out her inner lioness. My worry is that faced with the might of an institution such as Eton, they are facing even choppier waters.
Knowland may not entirely subscribe to the macho precepts set out in his lecture, but his stubborn refusal to back down was, in effect, an open declaration of war against which the headmaster and the school had to defend themselves.
On purely disciplinary grounds, Knowland doesn’t have a leg to stand on. As he conceded when we spoke, he doesn’t expect to win at the employment tribunal — which he intends to pursue — but hopes it will progress to the Court of Appeal under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression, including the right to ‘receive and impart information’.
And this, really goes to the heart of the matter and why what on the surface would seem a straightforward HR matter between an employer and employee has become such a cause celebre. Once you start invoking the Human Rights Convention, it’s no longer about people, it’s about principles. And that’s where things can get really nasty.
A lot of people will use this case and the couple’s relative naivety and inexperience for their own gain. They are caught up in a row that, for all its superficial parochialism, exemplifies one of the biggest issues of modern times. The last thing they want is to become unwitting pawns in a vicious dogfight between the armies of the censorious woke and those who believe in freedom of expression at all costs. Perhaps the most worrying aspect for the Knowlands is the fact that, for Eton, this is an important reputational issue. A lot rides on the outcome, and the school will do everything within its considerable power to protect its brand.
Not least because Knowland is not the only current source of embarrassment for the school.
On Thursday, a former geography teacher, Matthew Mowbray, 49, was found guilty of eight counts of sexual activity with a child after admitting downloading indecent images of children. The court heard Mowbray entered the rooms of boys on the pretext of discussing schoolwork before touching them for his ‘sexual gratification’. His job as a housemaster allowed him close access to students. He was sentenced to five years.
Individually, both these cases would be enough to tarnish the College’s reputation; together they represent a real threat to the brand. Many parents are already deeply critical of the headmaster’s general approach.
He took over from the previous incumbent, Tony Little (a former scholarship boy there who was much loved, highly respected and in the words of one former mother at the school, ‘understood the fabric of the place in a way Henderson just doesn’t seem to get’) five years ago. Henderson has taken the school in an unfamiliar new direction, earning himself the nickname of ‘Trendy Hendy’ for his pursuit of overtly woke causes.
As one other parent, whose child is currently at the school, put it to me: ‘I readily accept there is more to school life than the rugby field, rowing lake and the study of Milton. That said, younger boys being told to place a cushion under their jumper and being invited to imagine there is a baby in their womb and above their vagina is not, to my mind, a useful early exercise.’
Another agrees. ‘Boys are exposed as early as their first year to a programme on “Identity” which involves half-day workshops given by an organisation whose mission values are “Gender Transformative” and “rooted in women’s experiences, voices and scholarship”.’
It’s not just Knowland’s head on the block here, it’s also Henderson’s — and Eton’s. The Knowlands are not just taking on a former employer, they are taking on an institution whose roots run deep throughout the Establishment, nourished by power, money and influence at every turn.
I only hope they know this — and realise what mighty forces they are up against. Forces that, let’s face it, have crushed many far mightier and far more experienced than they. I wish them both the very best of luck.