The days of the all-boys school are over
It is a mere minute from Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. But stepping through Liddell’s Arch into the Georgian splendour of Little Dean’s Yard – possibly the most exclusive school playground in the world – can feel like stepping into another world. Decades on from my own time there, between 1988 and 1993, the miraculous seclusion from the urban hubbub of Yard, as it’s known, has not changed. For it is here that Westminster School pupils still have a kick-about, hurry to class, or simply hang out – socialising or showing off under the ever-watchful gaze of their peers – just as they always did. Under the gaze too, of a recently-installed statue of Elizabeth I, who founded the school in 1560.
Yet attention today is fixed not on the past, but the future. Westminster has now announced that it will admit girls from the age of 13, rather than just at sixth form as it has done for the last half-century.
The move follows last year’s report by Fiona Scalding KC into allegations from former and existing pupils of sexual harassment and sexual violence posted on the Everyone’s Invited website. The “wholesale cultural change” which her inquiry called for would be “that much harder” without a move to full co-education, she wrote then. But it turned out the school was already heading in that direction “out of a desire,” according to a spokesman, “fully to reflect the community we serve”.
The world, in other words, had moved on.
And among the nation’s elite private schools, it is not alone. Charterhouse opened to girls from age 13 in September 2021. Shrewsbury did the same in 2015. Winchester College, alma mater to Rishi Sunak, started admitting girls last September (if only at sixth form). So as society at large increasingly sees male-only institutions as antediluvian, or even toxic, is it all up for the all-boys school?
Experts queue up to suggest it could well be. “Westminster, as one of the most famous and prestigious schools in the country – and world – is taking a major step,” says Sir Anthony Seldon, who himself vastly extended girls’ admission as head of both Brighton College and Wellington.
He says: “There’s a relentless march toward co-ed.” Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Buckingham, agrees. “Co-ed is the strong trend. There are only a handful of all-boys boarding schools left.”
Eton, perhaps Britain’s most famous school, is, of course, still among them. “But even there, it’s been rumoured Eton will go co-ed in a decade – strongly denied by the school itself,” says Prof Smithers. So pronounced is the trend, says Charles Bonas, director of Bonas MacFarlane Education, which advises parents on schools, that when he was recently asked to suggest an all-boys boarding school to a client, it was hard to come up with a shortlist.
“Take out Harrow, Eton and Radley and there are very, very few.” Such parental requests are the overwhelming exception. “Most parents we’re seeing definitely want mixed as a priority,” says Stephen Spriggs at the consultancy William Clarence Education. “It’s the environment they want.” After all, asks Bonas, “when else do you spend your time in life in a single-sex environment unless you’re in prison or become a monk?” It turns out that Westminster School, where fees now reach £45,432 a year for boarders and £32,389 for day pupils, can indeed trace its history back through the centuries to a school established by the Benedictine monks of Westminster Abbey.
In becoming fully co-ed it joins the overwhelming majority of independent schools. According to the Independent Schools Council, only 15 per cent or so of its 1,388 affiliated schools are single-sex in early years, rising to a maximum of 30 per cent at senior school level. And then it is girls-only schools which dominate, with less than 10 per cent of institutions for teenagers declaring themselves boys-only schools.
You can see why that might be. Girls have long been viewed as civilising influences on rough, uncouth lads, as well as educational role models: diligent and more mature.
“Co-ed is better for most boys and for many girls,” says Sir Anthony. He recalls Brighton College – now one of the most sought-after schools in the country – “sinking rapidly” before he arrived in 1997 and “rapidly expanded the number of girls”. It was a lesson he took to Wellington as head in 2006, swiftly making it fully co-ed, just as Westminster is doing now. The impact was dramatic. “[Wellington] needed a strong shot in the arm,” Seldon says.
“It needed to say that the era of being a military, rugby, hard school was over. That we’re about educating young men and young women for the 21st century; that we need to be much more artistic, much more compassionate.” By the time he left in 2015 the number of girls had increased from 50 to 450 and, Seldon says, the school had zoomed up the league tables “from 256th to 21st”.
Improving results by importing girls can be make-or-break in an ever-more competitive industry. “Girls do better than boys in exams,” says Smithers, “so if league tables are important for marketing they bring that market.” Then there’s the obvious but nonetheless critical point that, as Spriggs points out, by remaining for one sex only, “you’re cutting off half your potential revenue stream.”
This matters because it is a sector where, for many years, fees have rapidly outsripped inflation. Today, there is a recognition that many parents are reaching their financial limit. Yet next year, an incoming Labour government could – as it has promised – remove schools’ charitable status, which would see VAT at 20 per cent imposed. The scramble for those who can afford fees will then get even more intense. “Fees are at breaking point as it is,” says Spriggs. Even Westminster, hardly short of applicants, recognises that “co-education is, of course, based on demand,” and the number of those “asking about girls joining the school has grown year-on-year.”
Yet hard evidence that co-educational schools are either academically or socially better for children is, say experts, difficult to come by. St Paul’s or Tonbridge or City of London School, for example, do not seem to suffer notably academically from being boys only. “We’ve carried out 15 studies on various aspects of this and haven’t found any conclusive evidence one way or the other,” says Smithers.
The Telegraph’s data of top schools tentatively suggests that, until A-levels at least, single-sex might work best, with just two of the top 10 at GCSE co-ed. From sixth form, however, the picture changes, with six of the top 10 mixed. That tallies with Bonas’s experience. “I have experience in boys’, girls’ and co-ed schools,” he says. “Years 9-11 (ages 14-16) are the real teenage hormonal battlefield years, you can’t really get a purchase [in a mixed class] as a teacher as you can with a single-sex class. But, from sixth form it can actually seem a bit peculiar that they’re on their own.”
As for the old saw about girls as a civilising influence, it is easy to forget that co-ed schools also featured in the Everyone’s Invited revelations. Sure, all-boys Dulwich College referred some cases involving its boys to police, though the Met decided not to proceed with action. Yet Latymer and Highgate School, both co-ed, were also the subject of serious allegations, with Highgate’s head teacher describing girls’ testimonies as “devastating”. Smithers says that “again there isn’t the hard evidence” to suggest that when it comes to learning sexually appropriate behaviour, boys benefit from co-education. Quite apart from that, he says, “girls would object if they were being admitted on the basis that they’re going to ‘calm the boys down.’”
Indeed, while more boys’ schools and parents of boys may want to go co-ed, it is not only up to them. And the girls’ sector shows every sign of resisting. After Everyone’s Invited, the Girls’ Schools Association reported fewer parents moving their daughters to mixed schools; the association, says Smithers, also worries that girls in co-ed are often submerged by shouty, over-confident boys and fail to thrive. “Girls’ schools,” confirms Spriggs, “are more resistant to change.”
One solution, says Bonas, is for all-girls’ schools to take on boys’ schools at their own game, and start admitting boys, getting them to adapt to the prevailing girls’ culture rather than the other way around. “Smaller girls’ schools would be brilliant if they had boys there,” he says, namechecking Francis Holland, in central London, and St Mary’s Calne in Wiltshire. “Because out in society there are more women getting in as legal and medical and accounting professionals, than men.” Certainly, students in these subjects are majority female, sometimes more than 2:1. “Co-ed,” he adds, “is the natural way, because the battle has been won [in wider society].” Eton might be an elite school for other reasons, he notes, but “no one’s jumping up today and saying ‘Eton’s great – it’s got no girls!”