‘Life is co-ed and we’re preparing children for a happy and successful life’

Posted on 19th Jun 2018 in School News, Prep Schools Guide

Sean Skehan, Headmaster of Barrow Hills School, extols the virtues of a co-educational prep school...

Last year at Barrow Hills we held a STEM careers event for our Year 8 children. Four speakers, an aerospace engineer, a senior manager from tech giant CISCO, a psychiatrist and a director of nursing, spoke about their work, the journey to their current job and the important qualities and skills needed to be successful. All four speakers were women. The girls and boys all heard the same message, that these careers are equally open to women and to men.

This is what co-ed schools do, teaching girls and boys that the world is co-ed and helping them to develop the attitudes and skills they need to thrive in that world, whatever they choose to do.

Girls and boys in our nursery happily play and learn together. They all play with the construction toys, they all play in the home corner, and they all dress up in whatever outfit they choose, builder or princess.

But they soon absorb the way the world generalises some things – colours, activities, qualities of character, jobs – as ‘girl’ things or ‘boy’ things. Our job is to ensure that those generalisations do not limit or inhibit our children, that they do not think they have to behave or be a certain way because they are a girl or a boy.

Children are individuals and have different learning styles, unrelated to gender. To say that all girls prefer to learn the same way, or all boys is an oversimplification. There are different learning styles which suit different children, regardless of gender. There will be a wide variety of learning styles in any school, co-ed or single sex. Good teachers make lessons accessible, engaging and challenging to all their children.

At Barrow Hills a first principle is that we respond to each child as a unique individual. We can do this because we know every child so well, what makes each child tick. We shape our teaching methods to help the children achieve the best they can. Girls and boys learn from each other in the classroom. When working on problem solving tasks they quickly learn the value of working together and sharing their problem solving strategies. Girls and boys may take different approaches and we encourage them to appreciate and value each other’s insights. But you have to work at it and actively encourage girls and boys to sit and work together.

Helping our children to discover their talents and make the most of them is our second principle. Talents are not confined by gender. We give our children, girls and boys, opportunities to develop their talents in every area of school life: dance, rugby, music, hockey, art, design technology, netball, maths, English, science, cookery. When a child is recognised as talented, as a leader in an activity, it has an amazing impact on their confidence, which in turn has a positive impact on their achievement across the curriculum. It helps that we have great female and male role models, with women teaching science and maths, and men teaching English and cookery.

Sport is changing to reflect our co-ed world, recognising that sporting skills and attitudes are not determined by gender. Last year our U11 first hockey team was a mixed team of girls and boys. They made it to the national IAPS finals. They were the only mixed team to do so and along the way some questions were asked. Not by our parents and staff, I might add, but those from other schools. Now the governing bodies of football, hockey and cricket are encouraging mixed teams, girls and boys playing together. Praising and rewarding players based on skill shows that ability doesn’t fall along gender lines. Encouraging co-ed teams at prep age teaches children to evaluate others on skill and not on the world’s generalised attitudes about girls’ and boys’ sporting abilities. All of our children were inspired by GB Hockey Olympic gold medal winner Helen Richardson-Walsh and Rugby Six Nations winning team member Maggie Alphonsi, both of whom visited Barrow Hills last year.

A co-ed environment is the best antidote to the generalisations that might limit or distort the attitudes and behaviours of girls and boys. Supported by their teachers, our children are quick to challenge any stereotyped attitudes and the resulting discussion corrects any misconceptions. The children are the strongest advocates of treating everyone as an individual and not as a member of a generalised group.

Barrow Hills has a strong family atmosphere, often remarked on by visitors and valued by our parents. It is natural for sisters and brothers to be together. For the only child, or the child with siblings of the same sex, the co-ed school can be an enriching experience.

Co-education is about girls and boys learning together and being friends together. They learn to mix naturally with the opposite sex, to be tolerant and adaptable. They learn to work together, to cooperate and to value the differences between them and the interests and enthusiasms that they share.

Our education system used to reflect a binary view of academic ability, children were either academically able or they were not, and this determined which school they went to. Howard Gardner’s ideas about multiple intelligence have encouraged us all to have a wider, more diverse view of intelligence. Perhaps we should now have a wider, more diverse view of children, not thinking of them first as girls and boys defined by generalisations which may limit and restrict them, but as individuals who can and will work together for the general good.

The motto of Barrow Hills School is Ad Majora Paramour – We are prepared for greater things – a motto in the voice of the children. They are the centre of all that we do and we respond to them as individuals with their own abilities and skills, individuals who are not limited by the world’s generalisations of what it is to be a girl or a boy.

Life is co-ed and co-ed schools like Barrow Hills are preparing children to enjoy a happy and successful life in whatever they choose to do.

Read more about Barrow Hills School....