Is the age of the single-sex boarding school over?
As Winchester College prepares to turn co-educational, Alexander Larman asks if single-sex boarding schools may soon become a thing of the past
Since its foundation by William of Wykeham in 1382, Winchester College has established itself as one of the country’s most prestigious schools. It has also remained an all-male environment – the school famously has “Manners Makyth Man” as its motto, something often remarked upon when discussing the famously polite Winchester alum Rishi Sunak – along with only a handful of other boarding schools, including Radley, Eton and Harrow.
This will now change from September 2022 when girls will be admitted to the school for the first time as day pupils in the Sixth Form; it is planned that a dedicated girls’ boarding house will then allow them to join the school as boarders from 2024. All previous attempts to implement such change have failed.
When I was a pupil at Winchester a quarter of a century ago, it was a strange, almost monastic place
As an Old Wykehamist myself, I was canvassed for my own opinion on the matter in 2005 when the idea was staunchly rejected by the school’s former pupils by a ratio of roughly 9 to 1. Yet, under the reforming headmaster Dr Timothy Hands and the Warden Sir Richard Stagg, once-unthinkable change is on the verge of taking place. As Dr Hands told me, the Governing Body came to a unanimous decision to admit girls after hearing a wide range of differing perspectives: “The Governing Body would like as many as possible who would benefit from a Winchester education to come to the School – irrespective of financial means or gender.”
When I was a pupil at Winchester a quarter of a century ago, it was a strange, almost monastic place. Although the intellectual life of the school was exciting and dynamic, it was also socially and emotionally repressed, with many of the boys leaving the school both academically brilliant and rather strange. A deep-seated fear of homosexuality was expressed in near-hysterical mockery and women and girls were objects of either lust or derision. I hope that there is now a more ecumenical attitude towards the female sex that will make the transition to co-education seamless, but this will depend on how far the school itself has evolved in the meantime.
One of my contemporaries was Maria Cleminson, a daughter of one of the teachers. Today, she looks back on her experience of being the only female Wykehamist in her year with a mixture of fondness and bemusement at what she calls her “unique and weird situation”. Cleminson agrees that the single-sex education that the school offered has led to numerous emotional difficulties, even before one considers the “bad and abusive things that happened behind closed doors”.
As she says, “I think a lot of the boys were, and probably still are, misogynists. I think the only available images of women being from magazines created unrealistic expectations of what women are and ‘should be’ and, for some of them, those years of assumptions about girls will have been irreversibly formative.”
Nonetheless, she still speaks warmly about the “many brilliant boys” she encountered, commenting that, “Winchester College wasn’t just about getting straight As; it also gave us an extraordinarily broad curriculum and taught you how to talk, how to own the place, how to get away with it. It inspired extraordinary confidence that other schools just don’t have the opportunity or tradition to provide … Will a mixed Winchester College still offer that? Or will it change irrevocably? I don’t know.”
This innovation seems unlikely to be taken up by the few remaining single-sex boys’ schools, at least for the time being; when asked for a comment for this piece, a school spokeswoman for Eton declined, instead directing me towards their earlier statement that “Eton has no plans to become co-educational.” Radley similarly stated that it “has no plans to introduce girls”.
There also seems no concomitant urge to make all-girls schools such as Badminton, Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Wycombe Abbey co-educational. Perhaps this is a reflection of a general belief that, while the introduction of girls into hitherto all-male environments will be a civilising and academically invigorating innovation, the reverse would be true if boys were brought into girls’ schools.
Certainly, parents wary of the existing fierce competition for places at the best boys’ schools will be apprehensive about the idea that it will be even harder to get a place there should they go fully co-educational. Yet it seems unjust that the finest educations in the country should be denied to half the population purely on the grounds of their sex and historic precedent.
And, as Hands points out, progress and evolution are inevitable, rather than things to be frightened of. “Winchester College has evolved significantly during the course of its 600-year history. At its beginning, the only women allowed were the school’s ‘washer women’, who could go no further than the outer courtyard. Winchester has thrived over the centuries by adapting, not by standing still.”
Time will tell whether the school will embrace market forces and changing times alike and open their doors to co-education. If they do, perhaps we shall come to regard the centuries of dominance of all-male schools as a rather interesting but deeply anachronistic phenomenon, rather like wearing bowler hats in public.
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