Education of the sexes doesn’t need to be a battle

I have watched with interest but perhaps not admiration as Brighton College’s Head Richard Cairns has claimed the media agenda with his views over single-sex education for girls. As P.T Barnum put it “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” and his comments have provoked a storm of defensive responses from Heads of girls’ schools over the past 48 hours. As Head of a co-educational school his view that co-ed is best shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, albeit that his supporting opinion of the imagined “risks” of single sex education for girls is rather eyebrow-raising – read his concerns for yourself here.

Cairns has his own agenda, but the mistake he makes is that made by all headline seekers – the sweeping generalisation. The fact is that different educational environments suit different children and this is true of both boys and girls who, after all, are all unique individuals. I have been fortunate to work in co-educational and single sex (both boys’ and girls’) schools, and it is true that each type of school has a broadly different feel to it and certainly one type of school may suit a child more than another.

Of course whether a school is single sex or co-ed is not the only aspect that parents must consider. Schools differ widely in their ethos and approach, so parents must look at whether their child will respond to the school’s ethos – do they work better in a relaxed and informal environment or are they more comfortable with firm boundaries.

Choice is key

In the Independent Sector we cater for families who have chosen to pay for education. As a sector we therefore have an immense responsibility to provide exceptional schools that offer choice to families so that they can find the very best fit for their child. Education is not a commodity product, and one size does not fit all.

In the Berkshire area we are extraordinarily fortunate to have a thriving and very diverse education sector and, although of course we do compete to attract pupils, I firmly believe we also recognise that our schools offer very different propositions. A lot of what we try to do during our recruitment process is help parents establish which school will be best for their child – after all, our school will only be successful if its pupils are happy.

The best of both worlds

I am not going to counter Richard Cairns’ views point by point. Instead I encourage parents to put them into the context of a world where girls do not exist in some kind of protected bubble (which as an alumna of a fairly strict convent school I’m not sure was ever a particularly successful approach in any case!) Girls are living and growing alongside boys in family, social and extra-curricular environments, which stand them in great stead for life. Some of them are learning in single sex schools, and evidence supports the fact that they do very well there. Certainly girls in day schools get the best of both worlds.

Our girls benefit from an empowering environment where they can be inspired by female role models within our own Alumnae community and beyond. They can learn whatever subjects they choose without encountering gender influence, however unconscious, which fundamentally means that more doors are open to them.
At the root of it all is the fact that a great school of whatever type will prepare its pupils to live meaningful and fulfilling lives. Different schools will suit different children and the diversity of the independent education sector is something that should be celebrated for offering choice to discerning parents as they make the most important decision in their child’s life.


Rachel Dent, Head, The Abbey School


Additional Heads’ Blogs on this topic:

Paul Mitchell, Cobham Hall – Cairns’ Comments

Caroline Jordan, Headington School – Still Fighting

Kirsty von Malaise, Norwich High School – There is still a place for single-sex schools, Richard Cairns

Isabel Tobias, RedMaids’ School – Headmistress’ Blog

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