If you were starting with a blank screen to design an education system today, it seems unlikely that you would think of creating single-sex schools, any more than you would single-sex professions or single-sex restaurants. Education for life is something we do together, like working or eating. Their existence is explained by the fact that when the first were established, most girls didn’t go to school. William of Wykeham founded Winchester in 1382 for ‘poore scholars’ who would be boys — that was obvious. Dean John Colet founded St Paul’s School in 1509, taking advice from Erasmus of Rotterdam and putting the management of the 153 scholars ‘from all nacions and all countres indifferently’ into the hands of the Mercers’ Company. These men were visionaries who thought about wide access and international reach. Were they alive today, would they exclude girls from that vision?
Schools for girls developed much later. Although there are notable examples of institutions in Europe which permitted women throughout the medieval and Renaissance period, the first school in England offering a comparable education to girls was North London Collegiate School, founded in 1850 by Frances Buss. There followed Cheltenham Ladies’ College, where the second headmistress was the suffragist Dorothea Beale. The Mercers’ Company took a full 500 years to found St Paul’s Girls’ School in 1904. That’s quite an opportunity cost for half the population.
So is there still a case for single-sex schools today? Given the long history of some of these well--established boys’ schools, it isn’t surprising that the idea of admitting girls to them should take some getting used to. Nor is it perverse that there should be such passionate advocacy for the girls’ school movement, which has a full half-millennium of catching up to do and, if you look at the inequalities in society more widely, has by no means finished what it started.
Girls’ schools had to play catch-up and still have the quality of revolutionary zeal. Their detractors point to the fact that the ‘real world’ is mixed, so girls just need to get used to that. Certainly schools need to prepare young people for society as it is. But they can and must do more to inform and drive the values by which that society is shaped.
Girls’ schools encourage young women to take themselves seriously in the best way: they are not taught to ‘play nicely’ because they are girls, to assume they will be less talented at science or maths than their brothers, to defer to male opinion because it’s more loudly expressed or that the height of their ambitions should be to be the wives of top men. If they love sport, they would prefer to be playing it than watching from the touchline; and if the school play is Macbeth, they assume they can play the main part — in fact any of the parts. They grow up thinking they can do almost anything because at school, they can.
When these capable and confident young women get into the workplace, they often find that the so-called modern world is, in fact, lagging far behind. I’ve lost count of the stories my former students have told of being given the ‘diligent’ work on which their male peers build their promotions. We know that the gender pay gap will take almost a century to close (better than five centuries perhaps), that female CEOs are in a minority in the top companies and that the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the careers of women is estimated to have put equality back a further decade. We are not slow to expose women to risk — studies from Harvard Business School have shown that failing companies are more likely to appoint women at the top, where they are presumably seen as more expendable should they fall off the ‘glass cliff’.
More fundamentally it’s worth remembering that there is a United Nations sustainable development goal related entirely to gender equality and to empowering women and girls around the world. While equality is a work in progress, held back by such deep-rooted and long-established biases, there will continue to be a role for girls’ schools which concentrate on one thing: accelerating that rate of change.
Some schools are pushing forward progress. Are others holding it back? Single-sex schools for boys are something of a rarity in 2021 and, understandably, cleave to their traditions fiercely.
Schools are essentially conservative places, not because teachers are risk averse but because young people don’t want the school they know to change. And no wonder: for those of us lucky enough to recall our school days with affection (and I know there will be readers who do not) our school is part of our secret internal landscape. The classrooms, the corridors, the places we loitered with our friends, the smell of the polish on the hall floor and the echo in the changing rooms — these things stay with us and are a part of what anchors us in our adult lives. The idea of that remembered place changing in any way, never mind being infiltrated by the opposite sex, is unsettling, and for those still at the school, perhaps unthinkable.
But however long their histories and however deeply loved their traditions, schools are about the future. As teachers grow older, students do not: generation succeeds generation, emerging into a world where change is inevitable. And they have to be ready. Boys educated in boys’ schools will find themselves in a mixed workplace where (when the girls’ schools have done their job) they may have a female boss. Their partners may expect to combine a career with a family, and shared parental leave will be the norm. It seems to me less clear why a school which purely from historical happenstance has educated only boys should necessarily continue to do so. Indeed, in 2021, it needs a compelling reason to exclude girls.
A truly co-ed school is of course not the same as a boys’ school with girls in it: too many have seen this as a way of ornamenting or enhancing the education of the boys, rather than providing vibrant education for all. Whereas a modern sense of womanhood can be developed in a girls’ school, boys learn better to be modern men when they are able readily to accept that society is increasingly not theirs alone to rule.
Great education takes many forms, and for those parents able to pay for private education it’s highly desirable for there to be choice, not just between co-ed and single sex but also in terms of size, culture and the many other characteristics which make a school unique. Each school must celebrate its unique culture, be true to its values and, considering the impacts both within and beyond its walls, take the right steps to evolve. As more and more schools embrace co--education, and as all-male environments attract criticism for allowing (no doubt unconsciously) a darker version of masculinity to take hold, it seems likely that a decade from now there will be even fewer boys’ schools. Tradition is powerful, but the case simply isn’t as compelling.