For me, the purpose of education is to encourage human flourishing. In the present, that is about leading fulfilled lives in that most precious and briefest of times, childhood. For the future, that is about equipping young people with the qualities and skills to influence the world for the better.
And the past? Well that gives us roots, enriching culture and the wisdom to learn from success and failure. It is to be cherished and preserved but should never alone be the reason for preventing change.
In practical terms, education, from the Latin educare to draw out, is about creating environments that draw out the best in children. Whereas co-education is often defined as mixed education, the prefix co actually emphasises mutuality. In a world where binary definitions of identity are becoming increasing slippery, stressing the centrality of mutual relationships becomes all the more important.
“In a world where binary definitions of identity are becoming increasing slippery, stressing the centrality of mutual relationships becomes all the more important.”
Putting the two together, co-education is therefore about creating environments where both sexes can draw out the best in each other and flourish.
Environments where children, whatever their gender, can learn from and with each other are all about constant adaptation and flexibility, looking at the world from diverse perspectives, listening, collaboration and understanding. It is not about which type of school produces the best exam results.
I started my career in a school which took girls only into the sixth-form. A week into my first term in a fully co-educational school, I was handing back an assignment to a Year 10 class. Simon was not entirely satisfied with my feedback: ‘Sir, be honest what was really wrong with it?’
‘OK, it was just very repetitive… and to be honest a little boring.’
‘You can’t say that!’ chimed a group of girls from the other side of the classroom. And a debate ensued between those who agreed with Simon and those who wanted more nuanced feedback.
“Mutual understanding begins with conversation and if girls and boys are not in the same class, those opportunities are reduced.”
It is a trite example but mutual understanding begins with conversation and if girls and boys are not in the same class, those opportunities are reduced. Now layer on the different perspectives girls and boys bring to the interpretation of a text or a historical event or the variety of ways a problem is solved in science or maths or design. People see the world differently. The richness of creativity that comes from that is frequently astonishing and always exciting.
As a father, I loved the fact that my daughter was the only girl in a rock band and that my son spent most of the first term of his Lower Sixth working on his devised piece for drama in a girls’ boarding house common room. Or that he stands beside me on a hockey pitch watching the girls’ first X1 in awe of the stick skills he does not yet possess. And best of all, I love just seeing boys and girls enjoying one another’s company and having fun.
“I would rather they learn when the stakes are low and there are caring adults and friends to guide them through.”
And of course, there are the times when boys and girls get it wrong with each other in the things they do and say, often as a result of attitudes that may need re-considering. No surprise there – they are a product of our generation with all its flaws.
Perhaps those who would protect from distraction by keeping boys and girls separate would like to avoid these for now. I would rather they learn when the stakes are low and there are caring adults and friends to guide them through. Understanding between the sexes is a growing thing – it does not just arrive.
Yes, these things are achieved in a single-sex school but I believe there is a better chance of mutual learning and understanding if boys and girls are schooled together.
Nonetheless, I find it strange that we are debating in the 21st Century the pros and cons of whether girls and boys should be educated together when the challenges the world faces are far deeper.
“Our education needs to be as diverse and inclusive as possible with a broader sense of purpose.”
Climate change, slavery, social, wealth and health inequality, geopolitical rivalry — these are people challenges, relationship challenges that go way beyond male and female.
If we are going to make a start on tackling them, our education needs to be as diverse and inclusive as possible with a broader sense of purpose so we nurture a generation that makes wiser decisions than we have done.
It is now much more relevant to move the debate on to the more significant question of what diversity looks like in our schools.
So forgive me if I cannot get excited by the news of another school opening its sixth form to girls.