Single-sex schools for girls are no relic of the past, says top London head

Alex Hutchinson, headmistress of James Allen’s Girls’ School (Alex Hutchinson)
Alex Hutchinson, headmistress of James Allen’s Girls’ School (Alex Hutchinson)

The headmistress of the oldest private girlsschool in London has launched a staunch defence of single-sex education saying all-girls’ schools are not a “relic of the past”.

Alex Hutchinson, head of the £21,000-a-year James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich, said it was not inevitable that all schools will become fully co-educational.

She also warned that the debate about single-sex education risks becoming one of “binary rights and wrongs”, whereas it is down to individuals to decide what school is right.

It comes after Westminster School said it is preparing to admit girls to all year groups for the first time in its more than 400-year history.

Mrs Hutchinson decided to speak out following Westminster’s decision because she said some of the reaction was “surprisingly heavy-handed with sweeping generalisations made when a more nuanced approach is required”.

She warned that people who disagree with the belief that fully co-educational schools are a “foregone conclusion” are viewed as having an “archaic mindset”.

She said: “I am more than aware of the benefits single-sex education can bring. Girls’ schools possess a specific energy built on friendship, support and laughter. Girls’ schools foster a lack of stereotyping and a genuine sense of individuality, where students are just as comfortable raising their hand in chemistry as they are on the hockey field.

“We hear the refrain ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. Well, in our schools female leadership and role modelling go hand in hand with inclusivity, aspiration and ambition. You can most definitely see it and be it every day in a girls’ school.”

Figures from the Independent Schools Council show that 13 of its single-sex schools became co-ed between 2021 and 2022. But Mrs Hutchinson pointed out that during the same period two co-ed schools became boys’ schools and three became girls’ schools. She said it was true that the number of single-sex schools has decreased in recent time but said it was not a dramatic drop.

She added: “There is a risk of the debate around single-sex education becoming one of binary rights or wrongs. Yet, ultimately the only decision parents should focus on is what is right for their child.”

Her comments come as headteachers of single-sex schools are grappling with how to deal with transgender pupils. New government guidance is expected to clarify that single-sex schools will not be forced to admit pupils of the opposite sex who identify as transgender. The Girls’ Day School Trust has already said it would only admit pupils based on sex, rather than gender.