We’ve written a letter to the governing body of Eton College in support of one of our members, Will Knowland, whose recent dismissal as a teacher at Eton – and his ongoing appeal against that decision – has been extensively discussed in the press. The alleged rationale behind Mr Knowland’s dismissal, as far as it has been made public, is that Mr Knowland refused to remove his 30-minute YouTube teaching video following a complaint by a fellow teacher, thereby exposing Eton to potential liability under the Equality Act 2010.
While we dispute this claim, in our letter we address the broader legal aspects of the case. Eton College is a charity, and as such it has a duty to further the public benefit through its educational activities. This duty is, ultimately, the responsibility of the trustees of the College (known as “Fellows”). We pose a number of questions to the Fellows, seeking to understand their role in this case, and to establish whether they are properly carrying out their duties in relation to the beneficiaries of the charity – the pupils of Eton and the wider public.
UPDATE: We have now received a reply from Lord Waldegrave – see below.
At the heart of the College’s grounds for dismissal of Mr Knowland lies the assertion that the College had no choice but to act in the way it did. However, we believe the College overstated its legal risk in relation to the Equality Act, to the exclusion of other considerations such as its core duty to the pupils to provide a broad, open-minded, challenging education. It might be said that, in effect, the complaint made by one of the teaching staff at the College was allowed to override the very purpose for which the College exists, and the reason for its charitable status. It is not enough merely for the College to say that it advances education through freedom of thought in a politically balanced way. It must actually do so.
The clear effect of the College’s decision – as reflected in the views expressed by current and former Etonians, amongst others – has been to promote one particular political ideology over another. In the words of the Charity Commission, “[p]romoting a specific point of view may be a way of furthering another charitable aim, but it would not be education.” This would be highly troubling in any school, but for one with such a storied history and pre-eminent international reputation, it is potentially catastrophic. We question whether the Fellows, who are entrusted with the legal duty to maintain the reputation and finances of the College, have considered the reputational and financial harm that is being done by the Head Master’s decision.
The letter further sets out ten questions that we believe are crucial for the Fellows to consider in relation to this case. In the event of Mr Knowland’s dismissal being affirmed on appeal, or if charity law obligations are otherwise breached, we intend to make a complaint to the Charity Commission requesting a statutory inquiry into the College under s.46 of the Charities Act 2011. We will also write to the Attorney General urging her to make a reference to the Charity Tribunal, under s.326 of the Charities Act 2011, regarding the meaning of the advancement of education for the public benefit in relation to matters of political and cultural controversy.
While our letter sets out the matter in relation to charity law, and also touches upon some abstract principles, nevertheless the case is a very human one concerning one of our members and his family, who are in danger of being made homeless as a result of this. We would urge everyone to consider supporting Will Knowland and his family at his crowdfunder here.
The reply from Lord Waldegrave: