I went to a co-ed school – and I want the same for my daughter

Female students in an episode of Malory Towers
British classics such as Malory Towers give us a romanticised spin on the single-sex experience, but the truth is quite different - Steve Wilkie/BBC

Waiting for my daughter at the school gates last week, I watched a group of 10-year-old boys and girls messing around. One of the boys had stolen a girl’s rucksack, another girl had joined the mission to get it back, and a joyful scrum ensued. Joyful, because although the girls had teamed up against the boys, they were relaxed enough around each other to have a good old-fashioned rough-and-tumble.

There was none of the self-consciousness we see elsewhere, in almost every interaction – professional or personal – between the sexes, and I found myself thinking that if we could only preserve the naturalness of those relationships in amber and carry it through into adulthood, it would erase so many societal problems.

I chose to send my daughter to a co-ed school because I fervently want that for her. Because at university, at work, in her friendships and relationships, I want her to be able to rough-and-tumble with men. Because as the chair of governors for The Abingdon Foundation said last week – after the school announced its decision to admit girls for the first time since it was founded in 1256 – it had become clear to them “that the life skills of teamwork, emotional intelligence, mutual understanding and the ability to relate to others are better fostered in a co-educational environment and one which more closely mirrors the conditions of real life.”

Abingdon is the latest in a string of high-profile single-sex schools to become co-ed, although admittedly the reasons for this are not purely ideological. Particularly in Britain’s private school sector, spiralling costs – with Labour’s VAT plan looming large – are a factor. All this helps to explain why, in the past five years alone, Westminster (my alma mater), Winchester and Charterhouse have opted to become mixed. Simply: the demand is there.

However, the latest figures show that 66 per cent more girls than boys are still being taught in single-sex schools, and it’s telling that none of the big-name girls’ schools – Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Wycombe Abbey, the Camden School for Girls and North London Collegiate – have plans to follow suit. Boys may be better off around girls, is the glaring message, but both academically and in terms of their personal development, the impact of boys on girls remains negative. And sadly, according to the latest 2022-23 figures released by the Girls’ School Association, it is true that girls in single-sex schools continue to outperform their counterparts in co-ed schools in almost every subject.

This doesn’t surprise me. But I still believe that it would be better for every UK school to become co-ed tomorrow. It’s not that I buy into the “academic achievement isn’t everything” argument. If the ultimate goal is a world of equal opportunities between the sexes, if we don’t want to later rely on quotas to level the playing field, academic achievement counts enormously. But if you take any animal out of its natural habitat, it will struggle to readjust, and I’d be willing to bet that elsewhere across Europe, where there is far less of a single-sex culture and children have grown up in the wild, so to speak, this disparity doesn’t exist.

Every reason given by the co-ed resistance only serves to reinforce my argument. “We’re inspired by Maya Angelou’s advice for young women to ‘occupy space’,” wrote the headmistress of St Helen and St Katharine’s school in Oxfordshire in a letter to parents this week, adding that remaining single-sex allowed them to focus on physical activity and being proud of strength. Yet the spaces these girls will be occupying will ultimately be shared with men, and they can focus on physical activity and galvanise their strength around men.

If learning to “fight like a girl” is as important as the endless books, memes and T-shirts tell us, how does it serve us to hone that skill in an artificial environment from which the implicit adversaries have been removed? Sexist stereotypes will always exist, sexist bullying will always exist. The single-sex educational model would like to enclose girls in a bubble, right up until university or their first job, when they can then be given courses and self-help manuals on how to make their voices and opinions heard in a room full of men, how not to be “silenced” or “intimidated” by those men.

I learnt how to do that at my co-ed school. I’ll admit that I was cowed and embarrassed the first time I started to answer a question in my English class, only to be drowned out by a heckle of “I can see your bra strap!” But the second time something similar happened, I spoke up over the heckling – and the third time, I heckled back. Attempts by men to rattle or slight women in the workplace may become less overt in adulthood (you’d have to have a professional death wish to taunt us about visible bra straps in a boardroom now), but when they arise in a myriad of different forms, we should know how to deal with them.

Vicky Bingham, the head of North London Collegiate School, insists girls’ schools are more important today than ever because, in the era of social media and AI, “where a disproportionate number of Silicon Valley men are making decisions and writing algorithms that will shape our lives”, female voices and values are stifled. “Girls’ schools incubate confidence and want to challenge expectations.”

Again, isn’t the idea of an “incubation period” for young women counterproductive? Wouldn’t they have a greater ability to fight off pathogens (men) and feel confident around them if exposed to them from the start? Also, as someone who went to a girls’ school in between two co-ed schools, I’m in no doubt that the most vicious attacks on my self-confidence were from other girls. It may not fit with our “boys are the enemy” narrative, but large groups of girls together bring out the worst in each other. Just as boys steeped in machismo become “toxic” – to use an expression I hate – girls too become hyper-feminised (pronounced “bitchy”).

About that narrative: the one that has concertedly been pushed since before the advent of #MeToo and reached a crescendo in 2017 when introducing segregated transport for men and women was actually touted as “a solution”; the one that would like to cast us as lifelong antagonists rather than two sides of the same coin. What could be more detrimental to our personal and professional developments, to our relationships, to – whisper it – the general gaiety of life?