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February 21, 2024

Is this the end of single-sex schools?

Elite UK single-sex schools are becoming increasingly rare with institutions opening their doors to a wider pool of pupils

By Eleanor Doughty

‘We didn’t think there was anything unusual about being at an all-boys school. It was only when I left that I realised how bizarre it was,’ reflects  Dr Martin Stephen, a former headmaster of St Paul’s School and Manchester Grammar School, of his days at Uppingham School, Rutland, in the 1960s. ‘Matrons were the closest thing we came to a member of the opposite sex, and they bore little relationship to any woman I met afterwards in my life.’

[See also: Introducing the Spear’s Schools Index 2024: the definitive guide to the 100 leading private schools in the world]

It was at Uppingham in 1869 that headmaster Edward Thring convened a panel of 13 headmasters, a meeting which led to the formation of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC). A century later, Uppingham opened its first girls’ boarding house, and in 2001 the first 13-year-old girls joined the school. Having played an important role in the establishment of the (boys’) public schools community, it is now one of the leading coeducational schools in the UK.  

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Just three of the original HMC schools remain boys’ schools, and of the seven boys’ boarding schools and two day schools examined by the Clarendon Commission in the 1860s, five are now at least partly coeducational. What happened to the single-sex school?

Parental influence and economics

Westminster School in London
Westminster School in London aims to go fully co-ed by 2030 / Image: Getty

The influence of single-sex schools is dwindling but not entirely vanished. Of the 1,400 schools under the purview of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), only 19 per cent are single-sex in all year groups above nursery. Ninety-two are boys’ schools; 139 are fully girls’ schools. 

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Things look even more dramatic among the biggest names in British education. There are now only three all-boys, all-boarding schools remaining: Harrow School, Radley College, and Eton College. In September 2022, Winchester College introduced a small number of day girls, and though Westminster School has had girls in its sixth form since 1973, it is aiming for full coeducation by 2030.

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There is plenty for boys’ schools to gain by taking girls. First, says former Harrow headmaster Barnaby Lenon, ‘if you’re interested in exam performance, it has a disproportionately beneficial effect.’ A study published last month by Cambridge University Press & Assessment found girls outperformed boys from early education to secondary. So more girls can mean better grades.

Parental preference is also a factor: many like the convenience of sons and daughters sharing a school. It is rumoured to be one of the reasons why the Prince and Princess of Wales are considering sending their eldest son Prince George to Marlborough, his mother’s co-educational alma mater, over Eton, his father’s former school and the expected choice for the future king.

[See also: The most expensive schools in Britain: from Eton to Gordonstoun]

Where single-sex schools have survived, it is often down to a different kind of parental influence. Lenon regularly surveyed Harrow parents who would ask him not to take girls, since ‘they had chosen Harrow specifically because it was a boys’ school.’ 

Economics, too, have an undeniable impact. ‘Years ago I got into trouble by saying boys’ schools go coed because they can’t get enough bottoms on seats,’ says Stephen.

It rarely happens in reverse, that girls’ schools take boys; ideologically, this is trickier. ‘Girls’ schools have always promoted themselves on the basis that girls benefit greatly from being in a single-sex environment,’ says Lenon, ‘so it’s difficult for them to suddenly change tack – plus if you take boys it’s likely to depress your academic quality.’

Single-sex schools: the good and the bad

Pupils at Eton College hurry between lessons, March 1, 2004 wearing the school uniform of tailcoats and starched collars, in Eton, England. Dozens of the country's foremost independent schools are facing heavy fines if a government inquiry finds them guilty of operating a fee-fixing cartel.
Eton remains single-sex / Image: Getty

Former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was educated at Cranleigh School in Surrey, then boys-only. ‘I regret going to a single-sex school,’ he says. ‘Encounters with girls were only very occasional, awkward, controlled, slightly embarrassing and strange. If school is supposed to prepare you for life, this was a gaping hole in my education.’ 

Lenon enjoyed his time at Eltham College in south-east London, which was also then boys-only. ‘Whether a school is single-sex or not is not the thing that defines how good it is,’ he says. ‘So much depends on your wider life. I had plenty of female friends as a teenager, mainly through church-based activities. I don’t think it hindered me.’ 

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Jo Sharrock, head of Putney High School, one of the 25 Girls’ Day School Trust schools, was educated at a southeast London all-girls comprehensive school and loved it. ‘There wasn’t a sense of doing a girl thing in a girl way, or a boy thing in a boy way, I was just me. I went to university with that innate confidence that a single-sex school can give you.’ She points to an oft-raised line of attack against single-sex schools. ‘There is this argument that we aren’t the real world, and of course we’re not – school doesn’t have to be the real world! It has to prepare you for the real world, and we are the most phenomenal preparation for that.’

Can single-sex schools survive?

Stephen increasingly believes that single-sex education is ‘far more important for girls than it is for boys.’ Having turned The Perse School in Cambridge fully coeducational in 2012, and kept both St Paul’s and Manchester Grammar single-sex, he has experience of both. ‘If you’re running a coeducational school you have to work a lot harder. There is an argument that the move towards coed has tended to ignore the different needs of the two genders at different stages. All too often the coed environment is fine for the tough and strong – but as a teacher my interest is in those who are not so tough and not so strong.’

Talk to leaders of single-sex schools and they will naturally tell you that their specialist schools – for that is what they are – are thriving: ‘We are seeing quite a high number of parents that thought they didn’t want single-sex coming to see us,’ says Sharrock. 

But the independent sector as a whole is under pressure, not just from the impact of rising school fees, but from the threat of the Labour Party’s general election pledge to levy VAT on private school fees. 

Might this mean increased coeducation as a means of shoring up? ‘We are facing a future that looks very tight for schools,’ says Grace Moody-Stuart, director of the Good Schools Guide. ‘We may well see fewer single-sex schools – it’s okay as long as we have good schools surviving, but it will be a shame. It is an important part of the choice that parents make.’

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