Girls' schools: Is it goodbye to girls' boarding?

The sector may be in decline – but staff and pupils are keen to sing its praises, reports Andy Sharman
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The Independent Online

At a seminar in Mayfair earlier this month, all the talk was of single sex versus co-educational boarding. The subject had been put at the top of the agenda by Frances King, the event's convenor and headmistress of Heathfield St Mary's School, Ascot. Her school is now one of only two in the country to remain exclusive to girls and full-time boarders.

This year's Independent Schools Council census showed a significant drop in the number of girls at single-sex boarding schools. More girls now board at coeducational schools in membership of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses Conference (HMC) than do at the elite institutions of the Girls' Schools Association (GSA).

In 1977, girl boarders at the top girls' schools outnumbered those at the top co-ed schools by more than 12 to one. There were around 24,000 girls boarding at the member institutions of the GSA. That figure is now sliding towards 9,000: a 60 per cent drop in 30 years. Girl pupils at the elite coeducational HMC schools, meanwhile, have shot up from just under 2,000 to nearly 12,000 in the same period.

The decline, some would say, is inevitable, thanks to the sheer choice on offer to boarding-school parents, with a number of famous boys' schools starting to take female pupils. Wellington and Stowe are the latest in a string of boys' schools that have abandoned single-sex status.

Meanwhile, girls' boarding schools have had a rough time of late. St James's School, Malvern, was forced into a merger with Malvern Girls'. Bedgebury School in Kent, a favourite with parents of horse-riding girls, plies its trade as an international school after a failed merger with Bethany school. Heathfield St Mary's is itself the product of a merger: Heathfield came to the rescue of St Mary's, Wantage last year, in a deal worth £7m.

But, according to the Girls' Schools Association, the problem is not confined to the girls' sector. "Over the past 30 years there has been a steep decline in boys' schools across the whole of the independent sector," says Sheila Cooper, executive director of the Girls' Schools Association.

"The reason is clear: 40 years ago there were independent schools for boys and independent schools for girls. Co-ed schools did not exist. After that, for reasons of economic pressure – not, in the majority of cases, because of any new-found commitment to the principle of co-education – the boys' schools started taking girls from girls' schools," she says.

Now there are only 13 boys' boarding schools left in HMC compared with 80 girls' boarding schools in GSA. "The demand for girls' boarding has remained remarkably resilient, given the pressures that they have faced," she says.

Anecdotal evidence from girls' schools around the country supports this. Wendy Griffiths, headmistress of Tudor Hall School, Banbury, says that in the past three years she has seen a significant rise in interest in girls'-only boarding as parents have explored the alternatives and found them wanting. In particular, she has found that interest in sixth-form places has increased among girls who have been in co-ed schools up to 16, and now want something different.

Claire Oulton, headmistress of Benenden School, Kent, the only other boarding-only girls' school in the country and the school that Princess Anne attended, claims her school has never been more popular.

Nevertheless, single-sex boarding is under threat. In the state sector, the number of single-sex schools – day and boarding – has declined from 2,500 in the 1960s to around 400 today. Likewise, over a similar period 130 independent single-sex schools for boys and girls have merged, gone coeducational or closed. The dwindling numbers at certain girls-only boarding schools have, some say, forced advocates of single-sex schooling on to the back foot. King went so far as to identify co-educational boarding as a "danger" to teenage girls earlier this year. Single-sex boarding has advantages in the current climate of the highly sexualised environment in which we live, she believes. "It's about allowing them to remain boys and girls for a little bit longer," she says.

King, a graduate of Ashford Girls' School in Kent and the all-female St Hilda's College, Oxford, is a high-profile champion of single-sex boarding for girls. But both her old stomping grounds are to become co-educational over the next two years, proof that she is swimming against the tide.

The Heathfield boarders seem to agree with their headmistress. "Being at a girls' school, I don't have to show off in front of boys, to always be cheery or nice, or put on makeup every day – which is just such a hassle!" says Laura Nissen, 16, who has been boarding since the age of 11. "Here I'm just myself. I don't need to impress anyone and I'm much more open and relaxed. I don't get embarrassed in classrooms, I just say what I think and I think at a co-ed school I just couldn't do that."

Rosanna Coats, also 16, has a similar point of view. "You can see boys on the weekend as much as you want and then you can go back to school with your real friends and talk about whatever you want without being pressured," she says. "You actually have the best of both worlds."

Not everyone believes this. Marlborough College in Wiltshire was the first major boys' public school to accept girls into the sixth form, in 1968, and current master Nicholas Sampson is a firm advocate of co-educational boarding."It's always seemed rather strange that you should exclude half of the population from what should be a preparation for society," says Sampson. "A lot of the rhetoric is understandably defensive from the girls' schools which have to make a case for themselves. But actually, where is the girls-only environment replicated elsewhere in society? It is not. The language of common sense is the language of co-education."

According to Sampson, some subjects, such as his own field, English literature, benefit from having both sexes represented in class, as girls and boys have different sensibilities. Unsurprisingly, the girls' schools disagree. "I think the opposite is true," says Vicky Tuck, principal of The Cheltenham Ladies' College, one of the foremost girls' schools in the country. "I think that, if they're taught in a single-sex situation, girls are more open and more likely to express their feelings – they wouldn't worry about saying certain things."

So why, in her view, has the tide turned against girls' boarding? The problem is parents have more choice, she says, and there are only so many girls in the system. "This is a passing thing. I think that in 10 years people will be saying that single sex is best. They will come to their senses."