‘The key is the child and what the child will want’ – Dr Anthony Seldon

26 Sep 2013

Dr Anthony Seldon

Dr Anthony Seldon

‘Girls must be taught in single-sex schools because boys are a terrible distraction.’

‘Boys need to be boys; that means they must go to all-boys’ schools where they can play rugby, take part in the CCF and do the kinds of things they can only do when girls are not around.’

‘The problem with co-ed is that it may sound very good in theory, but the reality is that if boys and girls are in the same school together, they will be spending all their time thinking about sex. They will endlessly distract each other.’

‘If you want your daughters to be leaders, or scientists, send them to an all-girls’ school. There is plenty of time for boys later!’


The above statements have all been made by real parents to me, and indeed they will echo the views of many of the readers of this guide. It is rarely a good thing to disagree with prospective parents. But it is, I fear, what I am about to do!

Let’s get some facts clear at the outset. There is absolutely no – repeat absolutely no – firm academic evidence to suggest that boys and girls do better academically when taught apart. Even if there was (which there isn’t) there are powerful and compelling arguments for having boys and girls in the same school for social and emotional reasons. The key is the type of school that a child attends – private school, grammar school or comprehensive school, selective or non-selective, for a start.

One has to appreciate that , in co-ed schools, boys and girls spend an enormous amount of time apart from each other, particularly in boarding schools. Houses are (almost always) single sex, so in the evenings pupils are with those of their own gender. Games are single sex, as are a variety of other activities. A problem with co-ed schools is that there are too many activities, not too few, when boys and girls are segregated. So girls have ample chance to grow up, be on their own and be with other girls when they want to, as do boys. In their houses, the young will see the older pupils of their own sex acting as the role models who they will want to emulate. In good co-ed schools, men and women will share the top positions, again giving both boys and girls an abundance of figures of their own gender to admire. And, by the way, in co-ed schools, girls join in both rugby and CCF, and boys take part in lacrosse and horse riding.

Boys and girls do spend a lot of time thinking about sex. So do many adults. It’s part of what makes us human beings. To imagine that boys and girls will stop thinking about each other in a sexual way if they are taught in different schools is the stuff of madness. Of course, boys and girls of an adolescent age will be thinking about sex whether they are sitting at the next-door desk or whether they are in schools at the opposite ends of town, and there is nothing wrong with that. I would argue that far more healthy relationships can be formed if boys and girls grow up alongside each other and learn to accept each other as human beings first and foremost, rather than fantasise about each other as sex objects. Helping young people to form natural and affectionate relationships with those of the other sex is a core part of what a school should be doing, and I think this is easier in a co-ed school.

All that said, the plain fact is that some of the best schools in Britain, and indeed the world, are single sex, including Eton, Harrow, Tonbridge and St Paul’s among the boys’ schools, and Cheltenham Ladies’ College, Wycombe Abbey, Heathfield St Mary’s and Withington among the girls’ schools. If a league table were to be drawn up for schools internationally, comparable to the table for universities worldwide, I would say that some 15 of the top 20 places would be taken by British single-sex schools. Their contribution to this country over the last 200 years has been immense.

Single-sex schools, whether for girls or boys, also offer some of the most economical and affordable education in the country. The Girls’ Day School Trust operates many such schools, which bring superb and reasonably priced education to many who could not afford the more expensive boarding schools. These schools not only excel in league tables, but also offer sport and the arts at a very high standard.

I am a passionate believer in the continuation of single-sex schools. They are absolutely right for some boys and some girls (though parents, please let your children decide, rather than yourself, based perhaps on outdated notions of your own schooling). To my mind, the key is the child and where the child will flourish. If a child has a sense that they would sooner be just with children of their own gender, it is important to listen. But, most importantly, consider the broader questions. What is the quality of teaching, the focus of the school, the curriculum on offer, the universities and courses that pupils go on to and, most importantly, is it a school where my child will be happy? Long may diversity flourish. Single-sex schools have a unique selling point, and if they moved more onto the front foot and championed their own virtues, rather than trying to attack co-ed schools on false grounds, they would flourish even more. That would be a very good thing for independent education.

Finally, some thoughts on the current debate on single-sex education. Children who are happy in their own skins. Children, who can form comfortable relationships, be they young or old, black or white, boy or girl. Children who fulfil their potential in music, in sport, in art and on the academic front. How do we, as educators, achieve this? How can we prepare children for their place in the outside world as well-rounded human beings? Is single sex versus co-ed the most important question parents should be asking? Consider just a few of the broader questions listed in the previous paragraph.

It  is a debate that has raged for centuries. Plato, in Ancient Greece, argued that educating the sexes together would develop both personality and a sense of comradeship.

In a world that is competitive, where men and women work alongside each other in every sort of environment, surely it is important that girls and boys learn these same life skills at one of the most important stages of development in their lives .

What I believe is needed is an environment where mixing is quite normal, where girls and boys work and socialise together, where reality puts paid to fantasy.

In a co-ed environment, it is important to remember that girls and boys do have time on their own as groups. As mentioned above, they, by and large, have separate games sessions and separate boarding houses. At mealtimes they may choose to eat together or in groups of girls or boys. They are never together every minute of every day. There is ample space for them to grow and develop, both together and with those of their own gender .

It is true that single-sex schools have made a huge contribution academically, and this should be applauded. As has been said, many indeed are at the very top of the league tables. Is this purely, however, as a result of being single sex? Selection at entry plays a huge part for many of these schools. If we could all select the cream, we should then expect to be at the top.

Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College 2005 – 2015

Wellington College, Berkshire



Dr Anthony Seldon was Master of Wellington College  2005 to 2015, having been Headmaster of Brighton College from 1997 to 2005. Dr Seldon has written or edited many books and is a political commentator best known as a biographer of Prime Ministers, including The Blair Effect, Blair and Blair Unbound,  and Brown at 10.  He has also written ‘Trust: How we lost it and how to get it back’. His next two books are on happiness and the politics of optimism.  Wellington College has its own foundation, specifically designed to provide for the education of dependants of members of the Armed Forces (originally the Army, but now extended) in the event of the premature death of a parent while in Her Majesty’s Services.