It began, remembers Rachel Knowland, with a Viking raid. Her husband, the sacked Eton English master Will Knowland, had recommended the classic Norse saga ‘The Long Ships’ to students at the school’s Huxley Book Club. He thought its buccaneering young hero Orm Tostesson might fire their teenage imaginations and they’d learn some history, geography and anthropology along the way.
But Knowland was rapped over the knuckles when a colleague complained, not about the book itself, but about the The New Statesman magazine review he’d added to pique their interest. ‘A banquet of adventure by sea and land, with man-size helpings of battle and murder, robbery and rape,’ it enthused.
‘Weirdly the objection was not to the idea that historically Vikings raped, pillaged, and murdered,’ says Rachel, 34. ‘It was about the word “man-sized”‘. Laura Bates from the Everyday Sexism Project [a charity which fights sexism] had just given a talk at Eton and apparently Will’s action in disseminating a quote describing something as ‘man-sized’ was insensitive.
Rachel Knowland, wife of sacked Eton teacher Will Knowland, has spoken out in his defence. She said: ‘We are the kind of diverse family Eton’s woke-ness is supposedly defending’
The family have lived in the five bedroom detached grace and favour house which comes with the Eton job for eight years. Now they and Sienne, 14, Amelie, 12, Jude 10, Cecily, seven, and 10 month old Gabriel, their Canary Mastiff Ava (all pictured) and three cats must quit
‘Looking back, it should have been a gigantic red flag. At the time I thought well, some people might want radical change, but what boy doesn’t like a book about Vikings – the open sea, adventure, treasure, dragon boats.
‘Will thought he was doing his job, instilling a love of literature. It hadn’t occurred to him he was committing a micro-aggression.’
‘For us that was the start. Since then a strain of misandrist thinking has taken hold of the popular idea of what it is to be a man. Eton is becoming a place where it is not OK to diverge from that – it’s heresy just to be a traditional boy.’
This incident occurred after regime change came to Eton in 2015 with new Head Master Simon Henderson or Trendy Hendy as he’s known for his adherence to progressive ideologies. Depending on your point of view, he has either dragged Britain’s most famous school into the 21st century or turned it into a cathedral of woke.
Knowland was dismissed in the fallout from a contrarian lecture in which he questioned the dogma of toxic masculinity. The 35-year-old father of five was suspended in September and lost his job on appeal earlier this month. The affair has triggered a crisis at Eton and a war of words about wokery.
Will Knowland (pictured) is the Eton English teacher fired for refusing to remove a lecture entitled ‘The Patriarchy Paradox’ from his YouTube channel
It’s also seen the teacher labelled a misogynist and his lecture, the Patriarchy Paradox, derided as antediluvian, horrifying his wife. She says: ‘Will is stoic and loyal and kind – he embodies everything that is admirable about masculinity. He’s not a thug who doesn’t value all parts of being human. Maybe he is not a shiny penny on the outside but he is a brilliant, natural teacher, a supportive husband and the father of three daughters who adore him.
‘He created that lecture because he sees the rising suicide rate in young men. We, as a society, are overwhelmed by the idea that men are toxic, useless and unnecessary and telling that to teenage boys on repeat is dangerous. Will was not trying to radicalise young men but he was – in the richest of Eton traditions – asking for fearless discussion.
‘He could teach boys how to game exams and jump through hoops for high marks but that’s not all there is to education. He has always believed that there has to be a bit of grit in the oyster to create a pearl. People may think he’s been reckless by standing up for what he believes but I agree with him that if Eton falls to wokery, with its history and all its eminent Old Etonians, then most places don’t have a hope.’
It’s a full throated defence of her husband, given that his principles have cost the couple dear. With children aged from 14 years to 10 months, Rachel stays at home and Knowland is the family breadwinner. They have lived in the five bedroom detached grace and favour house which comes with the Eton job for eight years. Now they and Sienne, 14, Amelie, 12, Jude 10, Cecily, seven, and 10 month old Gabriel, their Canary Mastiff Ava and three cats must quit.
Rachel says they cannot stay in a community in which allies have turned up on their doorstep with Brownies and sympathy while Simon Henderson’s supporters have cold shouldered them. ‘Some people think we should have just gone quietly for the sake of the school’s reputation,’ she admits. ‘But it is the school’s reputation which is at stake, this is bigger than Will.’
Rachel has a talent for singing funk and R and B which got her as far as the semi finals of Britain’s Got Talent in 2012 (pictured on stage with Ant and Dec)
She goes on: ‘Eton is a world all of its own, a smoothly run machine. It’s like the Borg.’ She’s referencing the cybernetic organisms from Star Trek who have a hive mind called The Collective. ‘You have to assimilate. It’s not for everyone but Will is no renegade. At least he wasn’t until the invisible lines of acceptable thought were crossed.’
Under the previous Head Master Tony Little, himself a scholarship boy, Knowland’s career flourished, according to his wife. Then Simon Henderson was appointed and constructed a kind of parallel curriculum for teaching Inclusivity and Diversity which was superimposed upon all of Eton’s famous Boarding Houses and each of its academic departments.
Rachel reveals how, in her husband’s own English department for example, there was an internal row over the hijack of display boards to promote the political manifesto of LGBTQ+ pressure group Stonewall rather than exploring the issue in a relevant way, through the extensive body of brilliant literature devoted to it.
Then there are the now familiar stories about boys being obliged to ‘come out as straight’ and stick a cushion up their jumper and imagine they have a baby in their womb, in gender identity workshops. So too, The Black Lives Matter movement was embraced at Eton with Prefects (known as Pop) obliged to wear waistcoats in BLM livery and talk of flying the BLM flag over the school’s gatehouse.
Rachel said: ‘I agree with him that if Eton falls to wokery, with its history and all its eminent Old Etonians, then most places don’t have a hope’ (file image of Eton College)
It was against this hyper-sensitised ultra politically correct backdrop that Knowland uploaded his intentionally polemical online lecture. Rachel says after the initial complaint he offered four times to amend it, and asked Simon Henderson for mediation and discussion. Instead, she says, the Equalities Act was ‘weaponised’ against him. And it was the fear of this, not a streak of stubbornness, which made him keep the lecture available for public view on his YouTube channel Knowland Knows. ‘How else,’ she asks, ‘could Will defend himself?’
She has had his back since they were at school together. They met at 13, started dating at 14 and had their first baby when Rachel was 19 and Knowland was 20, in their second year of university. Rachel was reading Classics and English Literature at King’s in London and Will was studying English Literature at nearby UCL. They were married between child three and child four by their old history teacher in the chapel of their former school.
Rachel is a stunning mixed race woman with Anglo-Caribbean heritage and a talent for singing funk and R and B which got her as far as the semi finals of Britain’s Got Talent in 2012. Knowland is from a Suffolk farming family and is a fully qualified personal trainer and a dedicated weightlifter. ‘When people learn he’s a teacher, they automatically assume he’s a PE teacher – or they think he’s a bouncer,’ says his wife affectionately.
We have benefitted from the social mobility offered by education, we are a mixed race couple, we have a child with autism, but the people who shout loudest about diversity are not the ones who would want to hang out with me
(Even this led to friction at Eton when he tried to introduce strength training for boys on the College rugby team. ‘I think if he had been a rower that would have been OK. Rowing and cricket are what they want, rugby will one day go the same way as boxing.’)
Asked to describe their relationship, Rachel says opposites attract, he’s an optimist, she’s a pessimist; she’s emotional, he’s phlegmatic. What they share however, is a personal sense of resilience which is these days far from universal.
Rachel’s mother is from the Caribbean island of Aruba, her father from Norfolk. She grew up in a single parent household and won an assisted place at a private school in the the first year girls were admitted. Her husband arrived there on a full academic scholarship two years later, bribed to do well in his exams with a pair of roller skates.
In addition the couple are the parents of an autistic child which means Rachel could face multiple diversity and inclusion transgressions every day, if she perceived them as such. ‘I would have been horrified if my own education had been hindered by a group of safe space police trying to wrap me up in cotton wool. As an adult I find it rather patronising to be told how I should feel about certain words or ideas,’ she says.
‘Actually, we are the kind of diverse family Eton’s woke-ness is supposedly defending. We have benefitted from the social mobility offered by education, we are a mixed race couple, we have a child with autism, but the people who shout loudest about diversity are not the ones who would want to hang out with me,’ she says wryly.
Then she tells a jaw-dropping story about being offered a golliwog for sale while browsing in an antique shop soon after moving to the town. (To be clear, the shop is nothing to do with Eton College.)
‘I declined and the shopkeeper said “I have a great collection out of the back if you don’t like that one?” I just thought silly old sod and have borne him no ill well ever since. Yet here we are wondering if, for example, when Eton decolonises its syllabus, we will have to stop boys reading Othello or To Kill a Mocking Bird, in case it makes them feel uncomfortable, instead of giving them the resilience necessary to overcome racist attitudes which, although offensive, can’t really hurt you. When you start, where do you stop?
‘I see a similar disconnect from reality with what’s been done to Will by Eton in terms of the feminist zealotry at work. Someone has been so upset by his lecture they’re willing to watch him be sacked and his whole family turned out of their house. The kicker is that whoever complained doesn’t even work with girls, they’ve chosen to teach boys instead of teaching at a co-ed school or a girls school. If it’s about lifting women up, where’s the integrity?’
It’s a very different and toxic climate from their early days at the school. Knowland had taught in both a state comprehensive and the private sector when he applied for the job in 2012. Rachel, initially trepidatious, says: ‘Eton was so refreshing. I was blown out of the water by it, a welcoming community and personable pupils. As for Will, he respected the institution and what it stands for, its academic freedom and the fact it’s a bulwark of British culture. That is very potent and Will always felt as if he were a custodian of what Eton represents.’
Now she’s left wondering if they ever completely fitted in. ‘Will doesn’t own a pair of red corduroy trousers,’ she jokes, adding that their children – who used to tease their Dad he looked like Batman in his black Eton robes – are not privately educated (other than one who recently moved to an independent school.)
Knowland plans to take Eton to an Employment Tribunal. They will survive financially through his tutoring which, given the leap to remote learning in 2020, is increasingly in demand. Rachel is looking ahead to finally forging a career of her own, something which has always taken second place to raising their children. The public judgements made about her choice have proved hard for her to hear.
‘Some people think a traditional family set up is archaic and awful if it’s a choice freely made, why is it seen as a prison?’ she asks. ‘Some of the traditional feminine choices are not the ones feminists value, in fact they denigrate them. I don’t belong to a monolith of women. We are not homogenous. Equality means having the right to choose what suits your family’s needs and sometimes a mother’s sacrifice is worth it. That’s the kind of balance Will wanted to debate in his lecture.’
She watched it out of curiosity before he sent uploaded it. She thought it was quite likely to put her husband in another jam but she did not expect it bring their life at Eton to an end. That said, from the moment she knew there’d been a complaint which made no sense to her, just like the one against his recommendation of The Long Ships to the boys of the Huxley Book Club, she had a sixth sense it was going to be serious.
Knowland was suspended shortly before Eton geography teacher Matthew Mowbray was put on trial accused of sexually abusing pupils in their beds at night. He was found guilty of eight charges of sexual activity with a child and sentenced to five years in prison earlier this week. ‘The proportionality of the school’s response towards a honest, moral teacher who uploaded a feisty lecture? It feels personal. Tell me what is is the real crime at Eton?’
The lecture cited the idea that men are hardwired to protect their families and provide for them. In standing up for the right to debate this, Knowland has been stripped – albeit for now – of his own ability to do either. ‘The outcome of this drive for tolerance has been intolerance,’ concludes Rachel, ‘and how wrong is that?