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Co-education – the smartest school choice you’ll ever make?

It's the ultimate education dilemma: single-sex or co-ed? We sat down with the Warden of St Edward's in Oxford to get the lowdown, once and for all, on why he thinks co-ed rules.

You taught for 17 years at Eton and Harrow, two of the most revered and famous boys’ schools in the UK – so why do you think co-education is the smart choice?

There are plenty of really great schools that educate separately — that’s a statement of the obvious! — and over the years single sex boarding schools particularly have improved massively. When I was at boarding school, they were closed communities; there was no weekend leave and there were few if any opportunities for collaboration between schools. Now, of course, you find that single sex schools collaborate with girl schools on things like social events, arts performances, workshops and seminars. That’s all great, but the truth is it remains a light overlay, and these advances are small relative to the day-to-day interactions at a co-educational school. We’re all aware that social intelligence has become much more important in education and beyond. In the world our children will inhabit, the landscape will very different – more digitalised, automated, with old ways of working disappearing – but what will never disappear is the need to collaborate with other people. So it makes sense that more diverse social environment in which children learn, the better they’ll be equipped to navigate this new social and professional landscape.

In which case, have you put your own theory to the test with your own children?

We have two girls, and yes, they’re both in co-ed. The Smithers report in 2006 and a subsequent report both concluded that there was little or no difference in attainment and cognition between single sex and co-ed, so my question is – if that’s the case, why would you want separateness? The world needs more togetherness! And of course, it’s normal to be in a co-ed environment, that’s how we all live. I’d also argue that when you have boys and girls together, the tendencies for either sex to go to ‘extremes’ of behaviour or views are naturally moderated by the day-to-day experience of being around each other, which is helpful too.

With gender fluidity so often in the headlines now, is it even relevant to argue the case for single sex or co-education now?

I think firstly it’s false to talk about girls and boys being intrinsically different – two boys can be polar opposites, so can two girls, so ‘typical characteristics’ for sexes is an outmoded idea. What I would say is that if your child is questioning his or her identity, it’s easier to feel the way in a co-ed school – from both a practical point of view, and because the ethos of the school focuses on the happiness of more than one sex.

You’ve been in situ as the Warden of St Edward’s School in Oxford for a princely six weeks. How are you finding it?

Working at Eton and Harrow was inspiring, and there was a hugely positive ethos, but I’m really enjoying working in a co-ed school. There’s a greater breadth to what I do now, a roundedness to the co-ed environment, and demonstrably more opportunity – for example, there are currently 40 boys taking part in our dance programme, and opportunities too for the girls here to play rugby. Those are quite extreme examples, but I think on a day-to-day level what I’m finding about the beauty of co-education is the stuff around the margins.

Yes, a boys’ school can do a dramatic co-production with a girls’ school but they rehearse together for two hours, and then go their separate ways for the next few days. When the boys and girls are at the same school, they discuss the rehearsal afterwards, are part of the play more informally, interact for longer and more meaningfully, and derive the fullest benefit from the experience. That interaction creates bonds and a deeper experience, and you can see that kind of value across the board, including in PSHE where the boys and girls might have discussions together about difficult subjects with greater frequency, greater understanding. It can only be a positive thing.

I’ve been to several single sex boys’ schools where there’s much effort being spent in listening to girls, understanding and respecting them. Isn’t that enough?

I just think there’s a better chance of boys and girls understanding modern issues and the difficulties surrounding adolescence if they’re learning about them together. #Everyone’s Invited highlighted really awful behaviours, largely sexual yes, but the root cause was the lack of respect for other people. Keeping the children separate is not going to help. There’s something about role modelling and responsibilities in a co-ed school that is part of this debate too. Boys get to see girls in positions of authority – head girl, hockey captain, lead in the school play. The same argument stretches to staff. At Teddies we have equal female and male teachers in management roles and it’s these influences that can also make a impact on children.

One of the biggest arguments for single sex learning is that boys and girls learn differently – by keeping schools single sex, your child will benefit from highly personalised, effective education. I’m guessing you don’t agree?

I think everyone is different – it’s not about girls or boys, so I think that argument is dated. All good teachers should be teaching an individual, it’s not about a type of teaching designed for a pre-selected ‘group’ because (of course) even a class full of boys or girls has very different personalities, requiring different approaches. Ultimately, I see teaching as a personal business; a people business. A good teacher will guide a child where necessary, of course, but the most important lesson, wherever your child is taught, is to allow them to be themselves.

Alastair Chirnside, Warden of St Edward’s, Oxford. Open Mornings at Teddies run most Saturdays, visit the website to register your interest.

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