I am not a single-sex zealot. That might seem odd coming from the Warden of Radley College, one of the great bastions of boys-only boarding, but it’s true. I get a little fed up with evangelical statements, backed up by supposedly incontrovertible statistics, that girls do better in this environment, boys in that. We all know we can find the statistics we want. What really matters is whether a school is good or not: there are mediocre single-sex schools and excellent co-educational schools and I know which of these I would recommend. And what matters next, once you have defined and verified ‘good’ – different criteria can apply – is whether your child will be happy: if they are, they are much more likely to succeed.
On exactly the same grounds, however, I am also irritated when people presume that somehow single-sex might be invalid as a form of education in the ‘modern world’ or that boarding is outdated. And heaven forbid that one might think single-sex and boarding might be the right option. Surely not? Won’t the boys – in my school’s case – turn out to be emotionally deprived, socially inept and some sort of boorish rugby thugs?
So I become an advocate for the sort of school I happen to lead. Fortunately, this is not difficult for me.
In the classroom – my experience is that:
Culture – ironically, in a boys’ school, boys are much more likely to play the violin or the flute, be happy singing, painting and acting and, importantly, they will be happy with their peers doing the same. I suggest a counter-tenor is much more likely to be admired in a single-sex school than in a co-educational one. Good single-sex education widens the definition of what is acceptably ‘male’.
Spare time – I look out of my window and see countless boys throwing or kicking a ball around – playing. One of the great sadnesses of recent decades is accelerated ‘maturity’ and the loss of innocence. I would not be as bold as to say that an all-boys’ boarding school can eradicate this but it can temper it.
The boarding community – the depth of relationships and strength of friendships are the great hidden benefits of boarding. When done well, a boarding education breeds the sort of community in which successes and failures are shared and learned from. The elongated week in which ‘school’ happens is hugely invaluable. Is that better when it is single-sex? Possibly not. Is it easier to create and maintain? Certainly.
Image – boys care about their image in front of each other, of course. But I think they care more when there are girls around. I remember when I was a housemaster in a co-educational environment there was a boy who was always behind because of the time spent grooming himself. He left his room – already late – and without fail he would take one last look at his reflection in the panel around his door handle. I like to think that is less likely in my school.
Of course, even in a world where the advent of social media guarantees more contact with the opposite sex – a point in itself to combat the stereotype – it is important to make sure we are not some sort of female-free zone. There needs to be natural and meaningful interaction with girls in school time. Not the slightly outdated Saturday night ‘dance’ alone; there should be cultural and academic events as well as social, and the social events should be varied and civilised. At Radley, we have links with lots of schools: drama, music, societies, conferences, debating, curriculum co-operation, and leadership training are a few examples of joint ventures which work.
A final point is somewhat prosaic. Every single penny of our school fees is spent on boys – developing expertise, facilities, and opportunities for boys. It does not take an economist to tell us that this is more efficient, presuming, of course, that boys and girls are different – which they are.
Boys need to be educated well. Good education is built on core values, and seeks to develop a rounded, civilised citizen for life beyond school. Someone who cares about things and for things, about people and for people; someone who is able to engage with the world in which they live. Please don’t tell me that that it can’t happen in an all-boys’ boarding school. As long as it’s a good one, that is.
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