Into the mix

IN 2021 Charterhouse’s hushed cloisters and vast, immaculate lawns will welcome new arrivals. For the first time since the boarding school’s foundation in 1611, girls will be among the “yearlings”, the term for those joining at the age of 13. Alex Peterken, the school’s head teacher, is excited by the change. He believes that co-education holds many advantages, one of which is that it helps militate against a “macho, alpha-male culture, based on hierarchy and order”.

For centuries, that was a big part of what boys’ boarding schools offered. And they were not alone in their approach. Until the 1960s all schools, with the exception of “one or two radical ventures”, were single-sex, says Alan Smithers, an education expert at the University of Buckingham. There was a big move towards mixed schooling with the introduction of comprehensive (ie, non-selective) secondary education, which offered a chance to reorganise the school system along more egalitarian lines. In the aftermath, the number of single-sex schools continued to decline.

The trend shows no signs of stopping. In 2010 542,125 pupils in England attended a single-sex school. Now just 509,910, or 6%, of pupils do. And although the shift has been fastest in the private sector, where schools have little choice but to respond to market incentives, it is noticeable in the state sector, too. Altogether 889 single-sex schools remain, a narrow majority of them funded by the state.

The decline is not for want of support in education circles. Those in favour argue that single-sex schools allow pupils to flourish, free from the distracting influence of the opposite sex. Last year Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools, wrote a defence of girls’ schools. She argued that they helped women “take their full place in a world which is, to some degree, loaded against them.” In 2016 an analysis of English schools by SchoolDash, a data firm, found that single-sex schools appeared to provide a small boost to the results of girls, but not to those of boys.

The trend away from single-sex education is mostly driven by boys’ schools, which like the better exam results provided by female pupils, as well as the opportunity to double the size of their market. Girls’ schools then have little choice but to follow suit.

Cultural change is perhaps the biggest reason for the shift away from segregation. Girls have long been seen, “sometimes erroneously”, as a civilising influence on boys, says Susan Hamlyn of the Good Schools Guide education consultancy. This belief increasingly combines with a parental desire for an education that reflects the modern world. “I’ve had lots of conversations with fathers who go, ‘Hmmm, I had a great time [at my boys’ school]...but I would rather not think of the way I behaved towards women between the ages of 18 and 25’,” says Mr Peterken. Parents’ habit of unthinkingly sending their offspring to their old school has also largely come to an end, bringing more parental scrutiny of the education on offer.

The fact that schools are moving in a European direction (single-sex education is rare on the continent) is not entirely coincidental. According to the Independent Schools Council, which represents private schools, the number of non-British European pupils enrolled with its members has increased by 42% since 2014. Single-sex schools have struggled to take advantage of this growth, says Will Orr-Ewing, director of Keystone Tutors, a tutoring firm, since European parents, for the most part, “just do not understand single-sex education, do not believe in it, do not like it.” Chinese and Middle Eastern parents are said to be keener.

Growing internationalism is not the only demographic shift behind the co-educational trend. A generation or two ago it was rare for children to grow up in households in which both parents worked. Today 60% do. This was one factor in Charterhouse’s decision to go co-ed. “Lots of parents have boys and girls,” notes Mr Peterken, “and they’re really, really busy, often both with high-flying jobs.” Putting all their children in one place cuts down on faff, both in choosing a school and shuttling children around.

Single-sex schools are unlikely to die out. Many are adapting to new circumstances. In Bristol and Newcastle, small girls’ schools have merged to form more viable institutions. There remains a religious constituency for single-sex education, particularly among Muslims and Catholics. (Eleven single-sex “free schools”, which are funded by the state but run by organisations including charities and religious groups, have been founded, often to cater to this demand.) And those single-sex schools that remain tend to be well run, meaning they frequently play a central role in “chains” of schools run by non-profit organisations, says Sue Higgins of the Association of State Girls’ Schools.

But the remaining ones look increasingly odd in a school system that is overwhelmingly comprehensive and co-educational. As Mr Smithers notes, a widespread emphasis on equality means that it becomes harder and harder “to sustain the argument that children have to be separate to be equal.”