A piece in today’s Sunday Times:
One of England’s oldest boys’ public schools, 600-year-old Winchester College, is considering the admission of girls. The alma mater of six chancellors, including Rishi Sunak, confirmed that it has discussed going co-educational.
The £40,000-a-year school, whose motto is “Manners makyth man”, said any such decision would be made by the governing body. It is one of only four remaining boys’ boarding schools.
Speaking after Winchester confirmed the discussions, Clarissa Farr, a member of the college’s governing body, said: “The past year has forced all schools to examine the quality, accessibility and relevance of their offer. Any school not engaging in these challenging conversations is not facing the future.”
The debate at Winchester, whose old boys include the 1930s England cricket captain Douglas Jardine, the former Corbyn aide Seumas Milne and the late comedian Tim Brooke-Taylor, will intensify pressure on the other all-boys’ full boarding schools — Eton, Harrow and Radley. Three of the four have head teachers who previously led co-educational schools.
A member of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, the professional association for heads of top independent schools, said this weekend: “After the criticism of entitled male behaviour during the #MeToo movement and the debates about toxic masculinity, some of the remaining all-boys’, all-boarding schools are thinking hard about whether they should go co-educational. There are only four still remaining — that is not even a rump. No one wants to be the last one standing … I think that all four will fall.”
The debate about single-sex schools has been one of the most divisive in education. Boys’ schools have come under scrutiny over whether they turn out entitled, sexist young men, while questions have been asked about whether girls’ schools produce women uncomfortable in workplaces often dominated by men.
Farr, a former high mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School, has criticised sexism and laddishness in workplaces, including the City, which she said was deterring high-flying girls. At St Paul’s she worked on setting up shared lessons for sixth-form pupils with a neighbouring boys’ school. St Paul’s boys’ school has appointed a female head, and announced proposals to admit girls to the sixth form.
The first girls to join boys’ schools have not always been made welcome, however. Cathy Newman, the television presenter who was an early scholarship girl at the previously all-boys Charterhouse, has spoken of being sexually assaulted while eating her lunch by a pupil who unzipped his trousers and made her touch him. Girls at other schools have described being given marks out of 10 for their appearance.
Until the 1960s, nearly all UK children went to single-sex schools. Today, about 12 per cent of independent schools are girls-only, and just under 10 per cent boys-only. In the state sector, comprehensives are largely co-educational. But girls’ schools make up more than a third of grammar schools, while another third are all-boys.
Some are moving towards co-education, especially in the sixth form. Tiffin School, a boys’ grammar in Kingston upon Thames, started taking girls in the sixth form in 2019. It follows Wallington County Grammar School, in Sutton, south London, which has had sixth-form girls since 1999.
Defenders say single-sex schools give boys and girls a chance to grow up free from the distractions of the opposite sex. Girls are more likely to do science A-levels in girls-only schools; boys more likely to take English literature A-level. Single-sex schools still dominate exam league tables. In the 2019 Sunday Times Parent Power school league table, all-girls schools filled half the top 30 places for combined GCSE and A-level performance, with St Paul’s taking the top spot.
Last week, despite recent reports claiming that Roedean School was considering the admission of boys, Oliver Blond, head of the £40,000-a-year girls’ boarding school, insisted that there were no plans to do so. [J4MB emphasis. All-girls schools good, all-boys schools bad. The usual double standard.] Roedean, near Brighton, was founded in 1885 by the Lawrence sisters, Penelope, Dorothy and Millicent, to prepare girls for the women’s colleges at Cambridge that opened about 15 years earlier.
Blond was speaking before this week’s release of The Dig, a film starring Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty, the former Roedean pupil responsible for the 1939 excavation of an Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, one of the most important finds in British archaeology.
“Roedean was created by the Lawrence sisters at a time when girls were not expected to be educated, have opinions or even a world view. Edith Pretty reaped the benefits of this and her education set the tone for a life of intellectual curiosity that resulted in her astonishing discovery at Sutton Hoo,” Blond said.
Guy Sanderson, head at Eltham College, a boys-only school for nearly 200 years, accepted girls from the age of 11 for the first time this year and has seen applications soar. “We used to have 100 candidates applying in 2014. We now have 500 candidates applying, a five-fold increase,” he said. “This seems to me what parents want.”
He hoped the move would mean that boys realised more quickly than he had that girls were highly intelligent. Sanderson only twigged when he was 22, after meeting his wife, a financier. His outlook had been influenced by attending a boys’ grammar school followed by Trinity College, Oxford and then working in the City, where there were “only two women on the trading floor”.
The head said educating boys and girls alongside each other was the best way to prepare them for a world where the sexes increasingly worked together at the highest levels. Sanderson said he hoped the move towards co-education would also reduce sexual harassment.
This weekend Winchester said admitting girls had been discussed on and off for a long time. Radley College, an independent boys’ boarding school in Oxfordshire, and Eton said they had no plans to admit girls. Eton said no “substantive discussions” had taken place on the subject. Harrow declined to comment but drew attention to statements on its website extolling the advantages of boys’ education. John Lyon School, an independent day school also in Harrow, northwest London, has broken with 144 years of tradition and will admit girls in September.
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