Principal's assembly 1st December 2020


If your school’s name has almost become a by-word for upper class privilege and eight of the last ten years have seen former pupils running this country, any kind of controversy is bound to attract media attention.

This week, that has certainly been the case at Eton College again. Some pupils have written to the Provost, their Chair of Governors, former Conservative Cabinet Minister William Waldegrave, to urge him to reinstate a teacher who was dismissed due to the content of an on-line lecture.
The lesson was produced as part of a course at the school called “Perspectives” which aims to challenge the conventional or prevailing views of the boys. In this case, the teacher was looking to question “current radical feminist orthodoxy”.

The letter has turned into a petition with a quarter of the pupils now signatories. Although the video was not shown at the school, the teacher refused to remove it from his private social media life on the grounds of freedom of speech. The Headmaster has been labelled “woke” by elements of the media.

The incident begs a couple of important questions for me.

Firstly, I wonder how we would have dealt with this kind of issue here at Fulneck. Before answering that, I must say that I am glad that I don’t have to run a school under the pressure of constant media criticism. I must also acknowledge that I don’t know all the facts. Indeed, most of what I do know comes from The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, always a dangerous starting place!
In the letter to their Head, the boys also accept that they don’t know the full story of the dismissal. In my experience, it has usually been the case in any disciplinary situation involving pupils or staff that we simply cannot tell other pupils or parents everything as, if the boot was on the other foot, we wouldn’t tell other pupils and parents everything about them.
There are, however, philosophical and legal questions at the heart of this case. It is often claimed that Voltaire said, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These days, most people would accept that freedom of speech is not, in fact, absolute. For example, we have no right to incite hatred or hostility, a restriction on freedom of speech intended to protect our relative homogeneity.

Teachers have every right to challenge opinions and open minds. I’ve spent the best part of 25 years playing devil’s advocate in Politics lessons, often questioning opinions with which I actually agree. It is also possible that topics will offend some pupils and parents. When studying American politics, we explore, for example, the right to choose, doctor assisted death and gay marriage, knowing fully that these ideas will offend some religious faiths. In the end, it is generally accepted that we are here to educate not indoctrinate.
The right to censor an employee’s political views expressed outside of work is also a thorny issue – and one for another day!

The second important question, for me, is whether the boys approached this issue in the right way. Again, I don’t know what discussions took place before the letter was sent and petition started. I have read the letter, though, and it is an eloquent and well-argued essay in which Mrs Gleeson and Mr Chilvers would no doubt see great merit.
I would hope that we’d never actually reach that emotive level. The point of my Monday meetings with the senior pupil leaders, my weekly meeting with Ayeesha and Zara, of the student council and of the recent pupil survey, is that you have the opportunities to put forward your views.

I’m especially pleased with the way in which our Heads of School are chairing the council meetings and putting the agendas together to ensure that your concerns are heard. They then become the channel directly to me and the senior staff team.

I know, for example, that many of our girls would like to wear trousers and I have committed to providing that option from September. I know that Years 10 and 11 would like to reverse the lunch rota and we’ll do that from January. Of course, there will be times when I disagree. The idea of a vending machine, for example, when we are trying to promote healthy eating habits.
The results of the survey were also very important. In the main, your responses show that we are a happy learning environment in which pupils and staff work together to achieve the very best results, academic, extra-curricular and character development.

There was one less positive trend. There were too many mentions of unpleasant or mean behaviour, what might be called banter (for me, just one mention is too many) and I know that Mrs Stewart and Mr Potts are working hard to challenge that.

Think through what you want to say before you say. If the red mist has descended, walk away and start again later. This applies equally to the cyber world as it does the real one. And simply, if it isn’t kind, don’t say it.

There will always be complex issues that need debate, be that national, school or personal. Please remember, though, that there are right and wrong ways to do it. Sometimes you will have no respect for someone else’s opinion but you can still address the issue in a calm, rationale and respectful manner.
 

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