Prospective parents often ask me my opinions about co-education as opposed to single sex education. As the leader of a co-ed school, I will of course put that case knowing that for those who have the means to choose an independent education, they have the privilege of choice and will know best what suits their children.
Philosophically, however, I think the educational debate needs to move on from a discussion about the pros and cons of girls and boys being educated together to a much deeper question about how we prepare children for their future.
For me, the purpose of education is to encourage human flourishing. In the present, that is about leading fulfilled lives in that most precious and briefest of times, childhood. For the future, that is about equipping young people with the qualities and skills to influence the world for the better.And the past? Well that gives us roots, enriching culture and the wisdom to learn from success and failure; much to cherish and preserve but never alone the reason for preventing change.
In practical terms, education, from the Latin educare to draw out, is about creating environments which draw out the best from and in children. Whereas co-education is often defined as mixed education, the prefix co actually emphasises mutuality. In a world where binary definitions of identity are becoming increasing slippery, stressing the centrality of mutual relationships becomes all the more important.
Putting the two together co-education is therefore about creating environments for a mutual drawing out of the best from and in children to encourage human flourishing. And environments for mutual learning are all about constant adaptation and flexibility, looking at the world from diverse perspectives, listening and collaboration and understanding. It is not about which type of school produces the best exam results.
I started my career in a school which took girls only into the Sixth Form. A week in to my first term in a fully co-educational school, I was handing back an assignment to a Year 10 class. Simon was not entirely satisfied with my feedback: ‘Sir, be honest what was really wrong with it?’
‘OK, it was just very repetitive… and to be honest a little boring.’
‘You can’t say that!’ chimed a group of girls from the other side of the classroom. But Simon was happy with my response and a debate ensued between those who agreed with Simon and those who wanted more nuanced feedback.
It is a trite example but mutual understanding begins with conversation and if girls and boys are not in the same class, those opportunities are reduced. Now layer on the different perspectives girls and boys bring to the interpretation of a text or a historical event or the variety of ways a problem is solved in Science or Maths or Design. People see the world differently. The richness of creativity that comes from that is frequently astonishing and always mutually exciting.
As a father, I loved the fact that my daughter was the only girl in an all-boy rock band and that my son spent most of the first term of his Lower Sixth working on his devised piece for drama in a girls’ boarding house common room. Or that he stands beside me on a hockey pitch watching the girls’ first X1 in awe of the stick skills he does not yet possess. And best of all, I love just seeing boys and girls enjoying each other’s company and having fun.
And of course, there are the times when boys and girls get it wrong with each other in the things they do and say, often as a result of attitudes that may need re-considering. No surprise there – they are a product of our generation with all its flaws.
Perhaps they are the things that those who would protect from distraction by keeping boys and girls separate would like to avoid for now. I would rather they learn when the stakes are lower and there are caring adults and friends to guide them through. Mutuality is a growing thing – it does not just arrive.
Yes these things are achieved in a single-sex school but I believe there is a better chance of mutual learning and understanding if boys and girls are schooled together. Nonetheless, I find it strange that we are debating in the 21st Century the pros and cons of whether girls and boys should be educated together when the challenges the world faces are far deeper.
During the pandemic, the murders of George Floyd and Sarah Everard, Black Lives Matter, Everyone’s Invited have spoken uncomfortable truths to our culture, and shone lights into places we have too long ignored. Climate change, slavery, social, wealth and health inequality, geopolitical rivalry -these are people challenges, relationship challenges that go way beyond male and female.
If we are going to make a start on tackling them, our education needs to be as diverse and inclusive as possible with a broader sense of purpose so we nurture a generation that makes wiser decisions than we have done.
It is now much more relevant to move the debate on to the more significant question of what diversity looks like in our schools. I think that begins with mutual education, for this is a journey of listening and learning from as much as it is about doing something. I am not sure we can make those steps alone.