Head of Prep Jane Crouch explains why Headington Rye Oxford Prep School will be welcoming boys from September 2024
Throughout my teaching career I’ve worked in single-sex environments and co-educational schools. I’ve worked in smaller schools and larger establishments, day and boarding schools, village, town and city schools and inspected dozens more in my role as an inspector for the Independent Schools Inspectorate. My position and experience means I have been asked the same questions countless times – is this school better for me and my family than the others I am considering? Why should I choose it? Ultimately, all any parent wants is to know that they are making the right choice – that they have the information to make that choice in an informed way – and that their child will be able to thrive.
I became Head of Prep at Headington nearly 10 years ago, moving here from a stand-alone co-educational prep school in East Anglia. Headington Prep is an absolutely fantastic school and the children in our care have really flourished. As we become Headington Rye Oxford Prep School, I am confident it is about to become even better. Not just because we will be taking boys as well as girls but it will absolutely be part of how we can grow to really serve our community and ensure we are offering your children the best possible education we can.
The debate about single-sex versus co-education can be polarising, confusing and ultimately, distracting. In the short period I spent reading similar articles while gathering my thoughts for this one, I found claims that girls did more sport in co-educational environments and also that engagement in sport was higher in a girls’ only setting; that mixing with boys would make girls less likely to take dominant roles in the classroom but also that it would expose girls to subjects they were less likely to take if there were no boys around; that it reinforces gender stereotypes or that it breaks them down. All this contradictory ‘evidence’ can’t possibly be true but I think in reality it is a great deal more nuanced.
From our perspective, as we began planning for the exciting merger of our two schools, moving from a single-sex to a mixed setting was a no-brainer. Oxford is a busy, vibrant place with lots of educational options but I am no stranger to parents tearing their hair out over the logistics of getting siblings to different schools at the same time. Ultimately, however much you love a school, it has to work for you and your family and practicalities play a huge part in that. There is a very clear demand for a co-educational school here, building on the smaller co-ed prep school which was already on offer at our soon-to-be home over at Rye.
We are brilliant at getting to know all our girls and, by treating each of them as an individual, finding out what teaching methods they respond to best. This means we have become experts at educating girls – but by using these very same techniques, as well as drawing on our experience and expertise from other, mixed, classrooms, we will also be able to cater to the different needs of boys.
Our class sizes will remain small enough to get to know them inside out. Our pupils are brilliant at understanding how they each learn differently and are used to welcoming new girls, many of whom have widely different life experiences, skillsets and ways of learning, at various different points of the school. They will relish the chance to meet and learn from the children who will be joining them.
To say that boys will bring a whole host of typically male activities, pastimes and interests is lazy stereotyping. Our girls already love Football, STEM, Lego, Maths, Chess, Engineering, taking on leadership roles – I could go on! These are activities which, in our experience, are popular with both boys and girls. What I am excited about is that the boys will bring a different energy and dynamic. Every cohort brings a new enthusiasm and hopefully this new cohort, with boys joining girls throughout the Prep School, will inspire new ideas and approaches that we may not have thought of yet.
Fears that some parents may have of boys dominating in a noisy environment are not terribly reflective of up-to-date teaching practice. In any case, if I look around the classroom, I already see lots of strong, confident girls who are comfortable leading in the classroom. For those who might be less keen to take centre stage, we have lots of ways to draw them out. For example, rather than asking children to raise their hands to answer a question, which always favours those who are more self-confident, we coax all members of the class to contribute by using random selection and calling on individuals. This way, no one type of personality is allowed to dominate and we build self-confidence, self-belief and self-esteem by giving all learners a chance both to succeed and to be seen to succeed.
At the same time, we will continue to value stereotypically female traits which are hugely beneficial to both sexes such as empathy, kindness and compassion. While we may associate these with female figures, we all know these are equally important for boys and no more easily learned by one sex. Bringing boys into a setting which highly values such qualities will help them build self-confidence, self-worth and emotional intelligence.
By dint of being larger, we will be able to offer more and the opportunities are almost boundless. On a larger site, we will be able to offer more clubs, more sports, more choice. This is of benefit to everyone. Where in the past the numbers may have been too small for an activity to be viable, by swelling our numbers, there’s a much stronger chance there will be enough boys and girls to run an activity. This is even more true for things which are typically popular with primary-aged boys.
We also have an ideal opportunity in these golden years for girls and boys to learn to form healthy friendships with each other before the flood of hormones complicates things. It’s a time for them to recognise the opposite sex as normal rather than being alien (less of an issue for those with male siblings of course) at a time where they may not be doing as much outside of school which involves socialising or working with members of the opposite sex.
An early introduction of different ways of cooperating with those who have different learning styles will bear fruit as they grow and mature. They are introduced to mutual respect and gain an early understanding of how people are different – and also, how they are the same.
So if a co-educational setting makes so much sense in a prep setting, why not at senior school? What magically happens at age 11 to mean single-sex is the better option? The one-word answer is puberty (again, there’s a bit more nuance here). Girls and boys develop in leaps and bounds through their pre-teen and teenage years. As they face biological, developmental and emotional changes there are lots of challenges without adding the complications of the presence of members of the opposite sex.
There is much stronger evidence for the benefits of single-sex education for many pupils once they reach this point. The girl who has been supported to argue her point alongside a more confident boy at age nine will naturally transition to leadership roles in senior school; the boy who has been encouraged to show and embrace his emotions at seven will find it easier to deal with conflict with his peers without hiding and bottling up those feelings or expressing them as anger. And of course, vice versa – all children are different and develop differently, experiencing a range of strengths and challenges at different stages of their lives and this is not split neatly along gender lines.
Circling back to my first point, I am not saying either type of education is ‘better’ – although one type may suit your son or daughter better. There are strengths and opportunities with either type of school and ultimately, it is for parents to find somewhere which best fits their child. We think for a lot of parents of boys and girls, it will be Headington Rye Oxford Prep School and we can’t wait to meet them all. We are hugely excited as our new school takes shape and, with pupil voice already embedded in our school, are looking forward to the children’s input as they help influence the future of our school.