There’s another row going on, down near Slough. Yes, Eton is in the news again, which is always welcome, because many of us experienced watchers of the school were beginning to wonder what had happened to it.
Beyond the daily gaffes of our PM, and the occasional appearance of its cobbled quads in The Crown – each in their own way reminding us of its unique place in the collective consciousness of the nation – the alma mater of the Establishment appeared to have fallen into a slumber, a sleep of reason.
But it is now awake – or awoke – replete with claims of internecine fighting, or some other state of agitated awareness that keeps Twitter and The Daily Mail in their customary states of confected outrage, and the rest of the country in an ever-deepening state of disinterest.
Gavin Williamson and the Eton feminism row
It’s difficult to know how to approach the story about the English teacher who uploaded a lecture to his own YouTube channel and was sacked by Eton’s headteacher, Simon Henderson (now known as “Trendy Hendy”), because he (allegedly) questioned the prevailing “radical feminist orthodoxy”.
This has now resulted in an appeal, which has, in turn, created endless coverage in the press (presumably because there’s not much else going on), another internal resignation, calls from students (past, present, and no doubt future) for more resignations and lacerations, as well as long-forgotten remnants of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet resigning from something before they were appointed, and then, finally, the entrance of Laurence Fox and Ann Widdecombe, to make things – well, you can guess...
A part of me almost gave up writing that last sentence – not because it was interminable, and too quickly turned into a paragraph almost as bereft of sense as it is of punctuation – but because I knew what was coming next. It is, unbelievably, this: that the secretary of state for education is now involved in the whole imbroglio.
After at first claiming that he, as education secretary, should not get involved in this particular Eton mess, and insisting on the importance of political impartiality, Gavin Williamson reverted to the sort of rapid change of mind that so many of his fans love him for. He said that he would be “very much in favour of Eton taking girls,” and that “it would be a good step forward”.
And, with one leap, he was free from the commitments he had made just seconds before, proving to his doubters that the kid’s still got it.
Interfering in school admissions
I may be confusing reality with fiction, The West Wing with Westminster, but I always hoped and believed that it was a sign of dignity and pride that ministers did not comment on internal matters of another state.
What a fool I am, because we seem to have trashed that particular shibboleth long ago. Now it seems that, for the education secretary to appear au courant, he must take a position on the admissions policy of a particular secondary school, to have a view on who it lets in and – worse – why they are doing it wrong, and why they should change things to make it all better.
Which seems unreal. After all, this is the same secretary of state who impassively drove by the taped-off car crash of last summer’s “examinations” season, deeming the grades absolutely tiptop and dandy...before executing a U-turn of such handbrake ferocity that the smell of burning rubber still lingers in the nostrils of every sentient teacher.
Imagine, for a moment, if a leading politician had decided to involve themselves in the admissions policy of a single-sex state school, or a faith school, or any school that has a distinctive history, or identity, and tell them that they are getting it wrong. Imagine that, with only a headline-deep understanding of those schools, he felt qualified enough to pass judgement.
Some in those schools might be a little bit annoyed by such an intervention. But this is Eton, and so it is always the Glorious Twelfth down Windsor way for every political opportunist, whether they are true blue or dead red. Here, the beaks and the boys stand in the political crosswires, unprotected by their status of being – let’s not forget – a school with young people in it.
Williamson was playing politics with a school, and its identity. That is shameful, irrespective of which school it is.
Single-sex schools, whether they are independent or not, do not just meet a parental demand, but they play an important role in society. They are cherished by those who choose to send their sons or daughters to them.
To blunder in and clumsily provide a flippant answer to a tendentious question is revealing for all the wrong reasons. One would like to believe that the secretary of state knew what he was doing, but that would be to credit him with qualities of foresight that all of us who live in the wreckage of his chaotic decisions know to be entirely alien to him.
It’s time he supped up his beer, collected his fags and returned to the tarantula-infested office that passes for normal in Whitehall now.
David James is deputy head of an independent school in London. He tweets as @drdavidajames