Parents have ‘calmed down’ after Ipswich High School’s co-educational announcement and believe in diamond model revolution
Time is a healer, reflects Oona Carlin, head of Ipswich High School, in her first interview about a month after the seminal announcement that the independent school will convert to co-educational status for the first time since it was founded in 1878.
It was a shock for most. Around a quarter of parents sought individual explanations from Ms Carlin, who held an open-door policy for students at the Grade I listed site in Woolverstone.
But perhaps the loss of Suffolk’s only all-girls mainstream school was not unexpected for some. It adheres to a national trend: the number of single-sex schools in Britain has almost halved over the past two decades, down to around 250. Improving state schools, preparation for a more equal 21st century society, less rigidly defined gender roles, evidence of improved grades under partial segregation, rising fees, and fewer ‘pushy parents’ are cited for the decline. Some are granted more credence than others.
Sitting in her office at the now former Ipswich High School for Girls, Ms Carlin said: “We are very sympathetic. It’s a lot to take in. There were a lot of negative responses but the tide has definitely turned. Time is a healer. It has now calmed down. Parents are incredibly supportive of me, the school, and our direction.”
To recap: the Girls’ Day School Trust is transferring ownership of the school to Ipswich Education Ltd, led by London & Oxford Group; boys will be admitted to the junior school and sixth form from September 2018; there are no changes to senior leadership or fees; and the school is joining the ‘diamond model’ revolution in which pupil numbers should rise from “just over 500” to around 650 within a decade. The school has capacity for about 700. There should also be family boarding.
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Ms Carlin said: “Logistically in Suffolk, parents find it difficult to send their children to different schools, and we are quite a remote site. All-girls education works in certain environments; in big cities where public transport and everything else works very well. In more regional areas where there is less public transport and it is less populated, logistically it becomes harder. We have seen that locally with Amberfield School (in Nacton, which closed in 2011 after pupil numbers almost halved in eight years). A lot of parents, and students, are now looking at co-ed at some point in their education. There is more of an expectation of having a co-ed mix. We are just moving with the times and what I think this region is looking for.”
Has there been a culture change among parents? “Yes, I think so. I have been involved in education for 24 years and I think definitely there is a shift towards having something that is a bit more modern, a little bit more able and flexible to move with the times. The distinct girls’ and boys’ schools used to work when they were perhaps next door to each other and they could socialise. But (all-boys schools) have gone and it had to change for girls’ schools.”
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Shockwaves from the news have been absorbed by the explanation of the diamond model: co-ed in lower or prep school years, some single-sex academic lessons in key teenage years, co-ed in sixth form. Hence the diamond. “It’s the best of both worlds,” said Ms Carlin.
Kevin Fear, head of Nottingham High School, which in 2015 accepted girls for the first time in 500 years under the diamond model, said it is “increasingly anachronistic” to educate boys and girls separately. Co-ed schools are also joining. An academy in Leeds is tackling a culture of low aspirations among girls who were more interested in impressing boys than studying. New Hall School in Chelmsford is achieving record GCSE results. Principal Katherine Jeffrey said stereotype pressures and classroom distractions have been banished. Boys with high energy at the start of lessons are given hands-on activities. Girls are not dissuaded from pursuing careers in science.
Current year six and above students will not be affected. Ms Carlin said: “It is sympathetic with our history. (From year five), students will be taught in gender-specific classes in science, maths, English, and sport. Gender-specific teaching groups will allow them to develop confidence in subjects which can sometimes be over-dominated by boys. It gives us flexibility. Moving into senior school, we will split out a little bit further. In drama, students can build their confidence in gender-specific classes. Design technology can also sometimes be dominated by boys. Equally, we can integrate that social mix in co-educational classes. Parents and pupils want that preparation for later life and university and the world of work. It’s a win-win. We keep the girls education tradition and boys will benefit in the diamond model.”