It is a Tuesday morning in July. The beautiful building of Westonbirt School is quiet, sitting in its exquisite corner of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds, in the sunshine of an unexpected heat wave. The dust has barely settled on the end of another school year. Saturday saw the grounds thronged with pupils and parents for the 2018 Speech Day. It was a typically happy and celebratory event, but this year’s theme, Transformation, was particularly apt.
Only a week previously, and a short month after Westonbirt joined the Wishford group of independent schools, the school’s charismatic Head Natasha Dangerfield announced that from September 2019, day boys will be welcomed into the senior school in Year 7.
Westonbirt has been a successful girls’ school for a full 90 years, so it is not surprising that the announcement generated a stir. Parents at Westonbirt Prep school, already co-ed, have responded overwhelmingly in support of the change, welcoming the opportunity for their sons as well as daughters to continue through into the senior school. While a few current senior parents have expressed keenly felt concerns about what this might mean for their daughters, the majority have responded positively. Going co-ed is, after all, just one element in a range of other developments that joining Wishford has made possible. There is also support for the move from Wishford’s other local prep schools (Heywood Prep, Cricklade Manor Prep and Hatherop Castle) where parents have been asking whether a Wishford senior school is in the offing. Building and nurturing relationships between its sister schools is key to the Wishford ethos, and that process of collaboration - the sharing of knowledge, expertise and best practice - is already under way.
Natasha, who has led Westonbirt School very successfully for the past six years, has naturally been fielding a whole range of questions from current and prospective parents, not least on the process that led to the announcement.
‘To the outside world, this might seem like a sudden decision,’ she says, ‘or perhaps one prompted by Westonbirt joining Wishford. In fact, the move to co-ed has been discussed for some time. Three years ago, we researched and wrote a paper on this, which the Governors discussed. It involved canvassing parent views, and even in the senior school, more than half were then in favour of co-ed. But it was never going to be something we rushed into. We needed the resources and investment to do it properly. It had to be right decision for the whole school – without a negative impact on the girls already here – and taken at the right time.’
So, why is this the right time for Westonbirt to make such a radical change?
‘I think because today, in this climate, the change is not radical,’ Natasha says. ‘The question I am now asked by parents all the time is not, “Why aren’t you co-ed?” but “Why are you single sex?” I have led a single-sex school for six years, and I am very proud of what we have achieved for our girls. I still believe that you can provide a strong education in a single-sex environment. But as an educator I have to challenge my thinking regularly, to ensure that I am doing the best for the pupils in our care. And the question, “Why are you single sex,” has been getting harder and harder to answer. There is no doubt that over the past five years, wider attitudes have changed. The gender equality movement, the Me Too movement, have gained incredible momentum. There are things that are now taken for granted that we have previously had to fight for, and that includes educational opportunities.
‘Here, we have always focused on empowering girls to succeed; to have the confidence to stand up and be heard in preparation for life beyond school. There is a growing demand among parents for an education where girls and boys learn side by side; not just academically – there are plenty of co-ed schools out there – but really learning to live and work together as equals. Our Prep parents, including those with daughters, have been pushing for it for years. Today, there is no reason why we cannot empower girls in a mixed environment. Our pupils thrive not because they are in an all-girl setting, but because the environment we have created means we are able to respond to each student as an individual. Opening our doors to boys will allow us to share what we do well in what is already a well-rounded environment. If we are to develop young men and women who can successfully operate in the work place, believing that all colleagues have something to bring to the table, don’t the boys need as much nurturing as the girls?’
Expectations around gender stereotypes have certainly changed. Enabling children to explore their interests is now a given in the early years, and you will see children working side by side, puddling about in the mud, building bug hotels, or throwing themselves into the performing arts, without remark regardless of sex. But in senior school, that stage on which the highly charged ups and downs of adolescence are played out, the notion that boys and girls need to be treated differently has been slower to fade.
‘It’s time to move forward,’ Natasha insists. ‘We don’t have to prove girls are as good as boys any more. We don’t need to reassure girls that they have the right brains to do sciences or maths any more. They already know they can do anything they set their minds to
, and they will continue to know this with boys around them. We now have the opportunity to develop boys in the same way; maintaining a healthy culture of progress and respect in all we do. By keeping girls and boys together during those key adolescent years, our aim is to ensure that true equality remains part of their expectations of themselves and of others.’
Sam Antrobus, Wishford’s founder, echoed these beliefs when talking to parents on Speech Day. ‘Westonbirt does a fabulous job of empowering our young women to expect equality, to demand it. But if we really want to change society for the better, don't we also need to empower young men to expect and demand that same equality? Can one small school in the Cotswold countryside, have a tangible impact? Surely we've got to try!’
With Wishford’s support then, the person leading the charge is, of course, Natasha. Her seven years’ experience at co-educational Gordonstoun, becoming Director of Pastoral Care – as she puts it ‘right on the front line’ – stand her in good stead. She is fully confident in her ability to lead Westonbirt through the transition to co-ed, and relishes the prospect, remarking that as a mother of 3, that she lives in a co-ed environment at home! So, what challenges does she see in incorporating boys into a girls’ school?
‘Actually, there are fewer changes required than you might think. Aside from ensuring there is pastoral support in place for the boys, and providing the same high-quality boys’ sports that we already do in the Prep, it is about continuing to do what we do really well. We educate the individual. This means the staff will look at each year as a group of individuals – as they do now – and group them in a way that best supports their ability or approach – just as happens now. We may end up with some single-sex classes, but that will be a response to the individuals in that group and not their gender.
‘I think you can draw an analogy with our overseas boarders. Having them with us enriches the lives of the British girls. We identify where we are alike, we celebrate where we are different, we treat each other with respect. But first and foremost those girls are individuals. It is the same with boys. Our challenge, our purpose, is to continue to grow this culture where everyone treats each other with respect, where it is simply normal to be in one another’s presence and all our students support and value each other.’
While it is far more common for a boys’ school to go co-ed than the other way around, Westonbirt’s transition provides an exciting opportunity to really make a positive step to reinforce equality.
‘Those boys’ attitudes as to what girls are and what girls can do will be shaped by the confident and assertive young women in the older years, and they will carry those attitudes with them as they move up through the school and out into the wider world.’
One such confident young woman is Molly, Westonbirt’s incoming Head Girl. Standing before the school community on Speech Day, she fluently and persuasively gave her own take on the upcoming developments, perfectly articulating what makes the school so very special and why its continuing success is assured.
‘No matter what the changes, Westonbirt’s aim remains the same. Westonbirt cares for the individual. As I look out today I see faces of hope, smiles and friendships. I see Westonbirt in the people, not people within Westonbirt.’
Westonbirt School Open Day is on 6 October 2018, from 9am-12pm to book please visit: http://www.westonbirt.org/admissions/open-days