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Co-education: redefining the battle lines

One of my friends many years ago at Sevenoaks once explained to me that his view was that the world was divided into Platonists and Aristotelians.

His argument ran that the first tend to have a blueprint for the world and for life. They think the world ought to be a particular shape. Plato, after all, wrote a whole book about this and called it The Republic. He went on to say that Aristotelians are more pragmatic and aim for what is good, but also for what works. They are not keen on blueprints and tend to be less prescriptive and more individual in outlook. You might not be surprised to hear that my friend reckoned me an Aristotelian. 

In the debate about what schools ought to be there is rather too much absolutism and Platonism for my liking. There is only one way of doing things: everybody must be excellent or outstanding, everyone must be examined the same way; though, interestingly enough, in the UK there is rarely any conversation about what it is that all this measurement and qualification might fit the pupil for at 18. Or, indeed, what it is that universities are for nowadays. 

I wonder if the battle lines over single-sex education might be the most Platonic argument of them all. I won't call it a debate, because frankly the conversation has been going on for so many years with no sign of either side moving an inch. Those who support single sex believe there is no other way of educating those in their care. Or certainly no other right way. Co-educationalists like me tend to think that it is the school that matters, its ethos and the opportunities it provides, rather than whether it is single sex or not. What matters most is fitting a child to the right school. And seeing a child flourish and grow. 

I can cite all kinds of anecdotal evidence for the superiority of co-education for the children I have known (some of whom have transferred from single-sex schools) but for me the argument that co-education is always right is as facile as the one, using the same but opposite anecdotes, which says co-education is always wrong. And about as scientific. I am the product of an all-girls' education and often say, without any particular evidence for it, that it did me no harm. I do wish, however, that I had gone to a school which had allowed for more options and more engagement. And that, before I had gone to university, I had both encountered boys in the classroom and done some boarding. 

My father taught English at a then all-boys Christian Brothers' school in Liverpool. When I was in the sixth form, he was teaching Tess of the D'Urbervilles to his all-boys set, whilst I was being taught the same book, by a female teacher, in my all-girls set in Birkenhead. Over supper one evening I observed that we had been studying the passage where Tess hears Angel playing the harp in the garden. We had all wanted to vomit. My father replied that his set too had been studying the passage that afternoon and they had wondered how any woman could be so moronic as to pick the clearly vile Alec over Angel. “Put those two classes together,” he said, “and you have the makings of a really good conversation." 

All these things are anecdotal. Platonists will never believe that their 13-year-old girls will be able to be their best with boys around, or indeed vice versa; Aristotelians will never understand why either gender needs to be ‘protected’ from the other as though they were an enemy. Rather, they argue, the disruption of adolescence can come from too much of the same sort of hormone. 

I am a co-educational fan because as a teacher I want to teach both girls and boys. I believe they learn heaps from each other. I believe socially it preserves them from too much alpha behaviour of either gender (and although, perhaps naturally enough, I know a fair bit about alpha females, I have learned a good deal more over 20-odd years of teaching about alpha males). To me the benefits for girls from co-education have always been transparent. I was once, after all, a girl myself. However, I remember very clearly the boy, aged 13 and a half, who explained to me the reasons why he was so keen to move to a co-educational school. He clarified for me what girls bring to the co-educational party. "The thing is,” he said, "I know exactly how I will turn out if I go to an all-boys school because there's a blueprint for how boys in x house at y school turn out. And I don't want to." A budding Aristotelian at the time stuck in a Platonic landscape. He duly became one of the most successful Bryanstonians I can think of. 

For me, this debate is arid and fruitless: a circular argument. The decision about education has to be firmly about which school best suits your child. The rest is a side-show. And, to quote Heraclitus, “ All things are in flux”. What suits a child at eight might not at 13 or 16. Focus upon the environment in which your boy or girl will learn and grow and it really will be job done, whether you have bred a Platonist or an Aristotelian….