Dr Timothy Hands, headmaster of Winchester College, roasts an old chestnut.
When Chairman of HMC, I was, to my relief, effectively debarred from discussing the merits of single-sex or co-education. But some old chestnuts keep on enjoying the roaster, and although single-sex versus co-education has enjoyed many a media toasting, it has so far always proved an impossible nut for any expert to crack. What follows can be no final cracker; but it is personal, heartfelt and intended to help parents with the dilemma.
I’ve moved all my life between single-sex and co-educational establishments. Once I’ve been in a college, and twice I’ve been in schools, where the transition to co-ed has been made. At Oriel College Oxford, where I was a lecturer, I opposed the move; I felt the same at The King’s School, Canterbury where I was a housemaster. But this hasn’t stopped me from hugely enjoying the co-educational schools I’ve taught in, or feeling proud when introducing girls to the Sixth Form at Magdalen College School.
This is not maverick but principled. Every horse suits a different course, and those with responsibility for the horses need to safeguard and preserve variety in the courses. I’ve been a governor of two highly distinguished all-girls boarding schools and would never have dreamt of changing the status of either.
The arguments for co-education are usually fairly limp in their expression, relying on terms like ‘natural’ or ‘real’. But the actuality can be compelling: stunning plays, swelling orchestras and, believe it or not, when girls join the school, boys’ sport gets rapidly better.
The Age Old Argument: Academia
In the classroom, opponents of co-education talk of boys/girls being distractions. Researchers at Bristol University feel there is some evidence that boys do better in English if taught on their own; but in almost 40 years of teaching I have always found the subject more readily communicated within a co-educational environment.
Arguments for single-sex education are both personal and academic. Many parties believe that single-sex schools enable children, in the words of Tony Little, to ‘be themselves.’ The Girls’ Schools Association argues that, ‘Girls are free to follow their inclinations with little of the pressure they might otherwise feel’.
There is no doubt that co-education can complicate things, I don’t know a single boy at Winchester who would rather be in a co-educational school. Do single-sex schools produce better exam results? One study will say yes; the other will say no. I would ignore both.
Always remember: the real distinguishing issue with any child is their individuality not their gender.
Once, when Magdalen had come top of the tables, I was phoned by a journalist from a high-profile newspaper. She wanted me to confirm that the achievements were the result of the school being, at that time, single-sex. I argued that broad and various attention to the manifold distinguishing characteristics of each individual were far more important than the merely binary issue of gender. Okay, she said, I’ll go to someone else. And she did.
The statistics, of course, are only going one way. Until the 1960s, virtually all UK children went to single-sex schools. Today, less than six per cent do. Arguably, if Brexit decreases continental interest in English schools, it will arrest this trend, while agents report that – in the growing markets of China and the Middle East – single-sex will long remain the preferred option.
So my advice remains the same. Every child is different: listen to the child.
‘Circumstances are what render every scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind,’ Edmund Burke wisely counselled.
Gender is not the issue: the agenda is the child.