Imagine a school that you could send your son and daughter to. A single school that fitted your ideal for both single-sex and co-ed education, operating from nursery to sixth form, covering all bases. One school — not three or four. A school that, for the final two years, allowed young adults of both genders to share lessons and facilities.
But imagine no more, for these schools exist, and they’re called diamond schools. (So-called because of the shape of the structure: genders together at the beginning and end, but apart in the middle.) There are just 13 of them in the country. Blending single-sex and co-ed teaching in the same institution makes them stand out as shining beacons in a fairly conservative landscape. Offerings vary, but the basic idea of co-ed junior years, single-sex for senior school and a co-ed sixth form prevails throughout. As the fashionable preference swings from single-sex to co-ed and back again, diamond schools occupy a unique compromise.
There are two types, the two-site model and the single-site. The two-site model, as Mark Steed, principal of Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire explains, ‘usually came about because of the merger of two schools in the same town’. At these schools, boys and girls are taught on separate sites from the ages of 11 to 16, allowing each to retain its single-sex character. During the sixth form, pupils move between the two schools for lessons.
The other type, the single-site model, sprang from the admission of the opposite gender into single-sex schools. Instead of merging in full, boys and girls are taught in the same buildings separately, but can eat lunch together.
But why go diamond? Single-site ‘diamond schools are very convenient for parents,’ says Steed. ‘They provide a “one-stop drop” for the school run — children of both sexes from nursery to sixth form can be dropped off together.’ This ‘one-stop’ idea is echoed in the shared ethos. Because both brothers and sisters attend the same school, there is no pastoral discontinuity; parents can be assured that their children are being taught in a way that suits their gender, but that the core values of their sons’ and daughters’ education will remain the same.
The pupils also benefit from the physical model. ‘Each part is often of a size that will allow pupils to know everyone in the school, while benefiting from the infrastructure and economies of scale of a much larger school,’ Steed explains. Those benefits include facilities: at Berkhamsted and most other ‘all-through’ (three-to-18) schools, sports and drama facilities are shared across age groups, allowing the individually small schools to feel like larger entities.
As facilities are shared, so are social hours. Unlike a handful of unlucky single-sex set-ups, there is no scrabbling to find a partner school for bops and sports dinners. ‘The boys and girls grow up knowing each other,’ Steed explains. ‘They have friends of the opposite sex, they just don’t have academic lessons with them, and are able to maintain an appropriate level of social contact that means it is possible to develop friendships with the opposite sex.’
While this might sound heavy-handed to those accustomed to a co-ed environment, the academic-social mix can be compelling. ‘We offer the right combination of single-sex and co-education that helps the child to progress academically and socially in the best possible way,’ says Tricia Kelleher, principal of the Stephen Perse Foundation in Cambridge.
Dr John Hind, principal of Dame Allan’s School in Newcastle, also believes that the system combines the best of both worlds by providing ‘all the benefits of single-sex education, combined with the social advantages of co-education’. He explains, ‘There was a time when the boys and girls were kept separated for the whole of the school day. Those days are long gone and students benefit from being allowed to mix during break times.’
The benefits of separation are seen inside the classroom, argues Lynne Taylor-Gooby, headmistress of the Royal School in Surrey. ‘Generally boys and girls show distinct characteristics. In the case of boys, shorter attention spans and greater physicality are significant and in the case of girls, their ability to concentrate is often undermined by the needs of the boys.’ It’s important outside the classroom too. ‘Pastoral staff appreciate the different challenges faced by boys and girls,’ Hind says. It is easily argued that this applies in fully co-educational set-ups too: staff of both genders may find it easier to connect with one type of pupil than another.
Diamond schools thus occupy a distinctive position in the school system, and it’s a position that might just catch on. Combining separateness and togetherness, they cater, ostensibly, for all. For those that might have second thoughts about a co-ed move after five successful single-sex years, Mark Steed has the answer. ‘Life, after all, is co-educational.’ You can’t argue with that.