When Eton master Will Knowland was sacked last year over anti-feminist views contained in a YouTube video which he refused to take down, alumni and others rightly called out Eton’s small-mindedness and intellectual conformism. If the best-endowed schools in the land can’t stomach unorthodox opinion, what hope for UK education generally?
They were, of course, entirely right. But there is a further, more serious, side to the story. This week’s widely-welcomed victory by Knowland is not the end of the matter. Eton, as it was required to do when dismissing a teacher for gross misconduct, had reported the circumstances to the professional body for teachers, the Teaching Regulation Agency. The TRA was then obliged to consider whether to disqualify Knowland as a teacher completely, on the basis that his publicly-expressed views had brought the teaching profession into disrepute. It decided that Knowland’s case ‘should be closed with no further action’. As a result he is now free to teach at any school that will have him.
This is clearly excellent news. Nevertheless the affair shows that teachers – and especially those with unfashionable views – can still face a worryingly rough ride.
For one thing, the consequences of falling foul of the TRA are not trivial. A teacher sacked by one school over an expression of opinion can always look for another more tolerant employer: an important escape-route, given that the atmosphere in school staff-rooms can vary from the pompously prescriptive to the relatively easy-going. A teacher handed a prohibition order by the TRA, by contrast, is prevented by law from teaching anywhere in the UK, public or private; and since such prohibitions tend to last at least two years, this in many cases essentially amounts to deprivation of livelihood.
Furthermore, it’s not as if the TRA’s power to ban teachers was limited to the kind of thing that must unarguably disqualify anyone from the classroom: subversion of exams, sexual misconduct involving pupils, or whatever.