Co-education

Guy Sanderson, Headmaster

A key feature of working in education is that it is a topic on which everyone, not surprisingly, has an opinion. It is after all, one of the most crucial subjects facing us as parents. The topic of single sex vs co-education can draw a range of strong opinions often shaped by memories of our own education, but also by contemporary discussions about gender, #metoo and the pay gap. Over the past 18 months, I have read over twenty detailed and lengthy research papers as well as the meta-analysis of other research into the most significant factors in successfully educating boys before debating these with senior staff in both schools and, of course, with the Board of Governors.

Time and time again, research (often funded by organisations with vested interests on either side of the debate), not to mention emotional energy and anecdote, can be marshalled to support either position. Articles on this topic are often so keen to conclusively make the case for one model over the other that they lose all sense of perspective and nuance. It is surely possible to acknowledge that all students, whatever their gender, develop differently over adolescence without falling back on unhelpful and monolithic gender stereotypes which fail to treat each young person as an individual. As Tony Little, who before becoming the Head of Eton, perhaps the world’s best known all boys’ school was for many years Head at a thriving co-ed school, notes “What makes a good school is so much more than its organisation by gender.” The consistent themes in all my research and reading are that the three key factors for educational success are quality of school leadership, quality of teaching staff and the level of parental engagement. Schools that do well have these factors in abundance and, if they have an eye exclusively on their league table position, may also have a very tight entry selection policy which influences their position far more than the more visible factor of single sex or co-education.

The decision to move from partial to full co-education was made in a positive spirit, for positive reasons, at arguably the most positive time in the College’s history. There was an argument for leaving well enough alone. However, our governors and senior teachers saw that continued excellence requires a continued willingness to ask big questions and to act on the answers. Knowing the power of an excellent education to prepare students for an uncertain and rapidly changing future, we asked ourselves why we were limiting access for boys to the invaluable opportunities to work with girls as equals and limiting access for girls to the wonderful opportunities at Eltham College. And, in 2018, there was not a good answer to those questions.

My vision for our school is probably not far off many people’s vision for our society as a whole. It is a place in which young women and men develop and learn together as well as from one another, where they compete and even laugh together with equal access and opportunities to develop their own individual potential. Getting there will no doubt have its challenges, but any goal worth pursuing usually does.