Row over boys-only policy at farming school

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The Independent Online
THE Equal Opportunities Commission is protesting about Britain's only specialist farming school, which does not take in girls. The commission's chairwoman, Kamlesh Bahl, is seeking a meeting with Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, at which she hopes to raise the case of Brymore School in Somerset.

Brymore, a boys-only school which opened in 1952, teaches the full national curriculum plus agricultural skills to 180 pupils aged from 13 to 18, three-quarters of whom are boarders. The boys help to run a 65-acre farm with a 16- strong dairy herd, as well as looking after beef cattle, pigs and sheep.

Somerset County Council had agreed to seek funds to make Brymore co-educational, but negotiations had made little progress when parents voted to opt out earlier this year. Now the school must apply to central government for money for new facilities, and it says taking in girls is not its top priority. It wants new science and technology facilities first.

The commission, however, says the school is breaking the law and that it must change its policy as a matter of urgency. The House of Lords has ruled that specialist schools are unfairly discriminating if they offer facilities to one sex and not the other.

The case could have implications for the Government's 'choice and diversity' policy for education. Ministers are determined to increase the numbers of specialist self-governing schools, but the EOC is equally determined that such schools should either be co-educational or should be paired with a similar institution for the opposite sex so that they offer equal opportunities to both sexes.

Brenda Hancock, director of social policy for the commission, said the Government's policy laid emphasis on parental choice.

'Where single sex schools are approved for specialisation and no equivalent is available for the other sex, a serious issue arises over equality of access to the curriculum. This is what has happened at Brymore,' she said.

The commission hopes it will receive a sympathetic hearing from Mrs Shephard, a former agriculture minister with a farming background. Its officials point out that in the past tenant farmers' widows have been evicted from their land because they have no training, even though they may have taken a full part in the running of the farm.

There seems to be little argument about whether or not Brymore should take on girls, but there is disagreement on when and how it should happen.

The school's head teacher, Tim Pierce, said he had received inquiries from parents who would like to send their daughters there, but that he had had to tell them he could not give them the same education offered by Brymore to boys. Even day pupils had to sleep at school if they were doing the morning milking, but there was nowhere for girls to stay, he said.

Tomorrow, Brymore will become a self-governing school affiliated to the City Technology Colleges Trust. Mr Pierce said it needed to update its science and technology labs to win full 'technology college' status.

'If funding was no problem, we would probably go co-ed next year. If someone came up with a million pounds to build a new dormitory block and changing rooms and for extra staffing to teach PE and so on, we would put it in the development plan immediately. As it is, it is bound to have the proviso that funding is allowed,' he said.