Cranleigh’s Co-education Journey

Written by Dr Andrea Saxel, Deputy Head Pastoral and Mr Simon Bird, Deputy Head

In 2020, Cranleigh celebrates the 20th anniversary of the year in which girls first joined the school in every year group. It was therefore fitting that one of the ‘pioneer’ girls, Tori Turner (nee Lyle), now a fighter pilot in the RAF, should return to Cranleigh to open our new girls’ boarding house, Martlet. She gave an inspiring speech to the girls, parents and staff, and we look forward to hearing from her again as our guest speaker at Speech Day in July. 

We have both taught at Cranleigh for 19 years. When we started at Cranleigh, Tori was the only female A Level Chemistry student in her peer group. Fast forward twenty years, the numbers of students who are studying Chemistry (traditionally a male-dominated subject) at A Level are almost exactly even in terms of their biological sex. This is, I think, one of many examples demonstrating how much the educational experience has progressed for both girls and boys over that twenty year period.

Based on our lengthy tenure at Cranleigh, it would be fair to say that we have both witnessed most of the co-educational journey first-hand. Along the way, we have learned what works and what doesn’t, what needs tweaking, adjusting and what has needed wholesale change, in order to provide boys and girls with an equally good educational experience. The model we have settled on is a mature co-educational boarding one that provides exactly that. In essence there are four girls’ boarding houses and four boys’ boarding houses; these houses work together in affiliated pairings. For example Rhodes House (a girls’ house) is affiliated with Loveday House (a boys’ house), and the Housemistress and Housemaster of those houses work closely with one another, to provide a plethora of opportunities for the girls and boys to mix, both in safe social spaces but also in collaborative endeavour in academics, music, drama, sport, and in numerous house competitions. This co-educational affiliation is therefore at the heart of much of what our pupils go on to achieve during their time at Cranleigh.

In a world where even rational people seem to be taking up extreme perspectives on a host of local and global issues, it is surely all the more important that the next generation of adults learn to understand and empathise with one another. For children in single-sex schools, there is a reality that contact with the opposite sex generally takes place either on a social level during weekends, or via technology. In both of these cases such contact can be quite ‘fake’, as teenagers can ‘put on an act’ for a few hours at a party, or present an entirely false image of themselves in their online worlds.

It is really only when contact with one another becomes regular and, even, mundane, that people begin to see one another for who they really are. This honesty is the outcome when such contact is achieved by working alongside and collaborating with one another, and playing sport or taking part in musical or dramatic activity together on an everyday basis. Eventually our pupils become Prefects, where they lead their peers and the younger pupils alike; even in this area of school life, much of their leadership opportunities are delivered within their house affiliations. The by-product of this model is that they cannot put on an ‘act’ with one another, and because they come into so much contact with each other, they form friendships that extend long beyond their school years, that are based on character and common interests, rather than a false image of one another.

In recent years we have followed the #metoo stories with interest and witnessed with horror some of the backlash following that movement. We hear stories of toxic masculinity regularly and also now know that middle aged men are a high risk group when it comes to suicide, with the need to fit in the masculine stereotypes identified as a contributory factor. We also know that toxic femininity can cause untold harm in young women as they struggle to fit in. In addition all teenagers are constantly struggling with the ideas around consent, and the complexities involved; in short teenage life is a minefield, and what teenagers learn during that time can have lasting effect on their wellbeing and mental health.

The only way that we can enable our young men and women to learn to navigate the complex environment they are growing up in, is to enable them to understand one another’s perspectives, and that need is at the heart of much of what we are trying to achieve with our co-educational model.

Two recent events occurred at Cranleigh that demonstrated how far we have come. Firstly, we watched two sixth form boys deliver a highly impressive and impactful talk to the whole school on the subject of homophobia and intolerance in general, and how even the smallest slights can have a lasting negative impact. To say it was well received would be an understatement. Secondly, in talking with a boy about some difficult issues he was facing, we reflected on the fact that boys and girls happily sit next to each other in lessons. He then said he couldn’t ever have imagined coming to get help if he hadn’t been sitting next to a girl who had listened to him, tried to support him and in the end had forced him to speak to a teacher; she sat alongside him, gave sage advice and helped him to talk openly about how he was feeling. That level of emotional intelligence can only be fostered in an environment that enables boys and girls to get to know each other in a genuine way, through time spent together.

For the next generation of adults, being empathic towards one another will be key to tackling some of the extreme ideals and opinions that are having a negative impact on the world we live in. A mature co-educational boarding school provides an environment in which to foster such empathy.

It has taken us twenty years to get to where we are now, simply because it takes years to effect wholesale change of this nature; it takes time and effort to change staff, pupil and parental perceptions and to push through the many incremental changes that need to occur to enable an open environment to develop. At the start of our journey it might have been fair to say that we were a boys’ school with girls in it; we are so pleased to say that now we are a truly co-educational boarding school, and we know that the boys and girls benefit equally from that, and will go on to do so for the rest of their lives.