There are just four remaining all-boys boarding schools in the UK. From September, there will be three: Winchester College has announced that it will start taking girls in the sixth-form. Girls will join the sixth-form as day pupils in a 50-50 split and are expected to be offered boarding places from 2024. Some have said that it's about time schools like Winchester got with the times. In fact, for Wkyehamists like me, this announcement which breaks a legacy going back 640 years is a great pity.
The all-boys boarding education that Winchester College offers has stood the test of time and it continues to flourish in all areas. Yet by opting to become co-educational, Winchester is in danger of becoming yet another mixed-sex independent school.
The school has defended its move as a chance to ‘diversify’ Winchester and open opportunities to more avenues. It will do the opposite. If Winchester truly wishes to broaden opportunities and access, then it should continue to add to its commendable, sizeable bursaries mission in one particular direction: working-class boys.
Winchester declined an offer in 2019 of a £1m scholarship donation to support disadvantaged white boys. This was a regrettable decision. Privately-educated British boys will have their minds swelled by the broad diversity of their international peers, from the west coast of the US through to the Far East. But they are less likely to meet and learn from less fortunate boys closer to home. The addition of similarly privileged girls will do little to diversify Winchester life. The girls are likely to have had near-identical upbringings, with similar cultural experiences and lifestyles. By contrast, the provision of a first-class education to bright but disadvantaged boys would bring significant divergent thinking.
'It’s the whole alpha male ethos which is propagated in a single-sex boys’ school environment which concerns me,' wrote Annabel Heseltine in the Daily Telegraph. 'Boys run in packs…You only have to watch them on a rugby field and or hear the joshing over a sports tea afterward.'
There is no rugby at Winchester. We play our own game instead. And this is not the only area where the school diverges from the traditional public school set. Fears of an 'alpha male ethos' could not be more wrong when discussing Wykehamists. Most of those I met in my school days are not brash, loud, or aggressive. Winchester is scholarly, publicly shy, and quietly self-assured. Rishi Sunak’s recent rise has been met with scorn from some of my fellow Old Wykehamists who think he is 'showing off' or 'acting like an Etonian'.
The college is a gentle place, where coolness is not defined by membership of the top football or cricket teams. Indeed, coolness does not seem to matter at all, as many of the boys are almost disturbingly bookish. In my first year, I met a student who kept a dictionary in a cage and ‘fed it’ cabbage. I am quite sure that he enjoyed five years of education untainted by any 'alpha male ethos'.
It is a deeply strange but beautiful place packed with self-effacing boys who prize academic scholarship and friendly collegiality above all else. Their formative years have not been hit by the nervousness afflicted on young men by the constant presence of girls. Boys are free to be boys. This is where lifelong friendships are made, where self-worth is developed, where camaraderie and mutual support underpin all aspects of school life. Boys can express themselves intellectually, emotionally and creatively without feeling self-conscious. There are plenty of mixed schools — there is only one Winchester College.
But with this move, Winchester will never be the same again. The atmosphere will permanently shift, and the kind of boy it both attracts and produces will move with it. For the many parents in Britain and around the world who want the choice of an all-boys boarding education for their son, just a handful of destinations – the likes of Harrow, Eton and Radley – remain.
Harrow, now headed by Winchester’s inspirational former Master in College Alastair Land, writes on its website:
'Although we never pretend that single-sex school is the only way to educate someone, it does help to prolong childhood in a very healthy way, enabling children to express themselves intellectually, emotionally and creative without feeling self-conscious.'
This opportunity is especially precious for boys, for whom intellectual, emotional and creative expression can be more difficult to foster. Its loss at Winchester is a great shame.