Two into one can work out well

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
With the current row over the merger of two independent schools in Glasgow, Raymond Ross visits one of the most famous boys' schools in the city to find out how it coped with a merger that also meant going co-educational

Whether or not Laurel Park, the independent girls' school in Glasgow, is to be swept away on an acrimonious tide of parental resentment at the proposed merger with Hutchesons' Grammar, its ethos has become so diluted that its days seem numbered anyway. So says the rector of nearby Glasgow Academy, David Comins.

"A week or two ago I would have said to Laurel Park parents to stick with the single sex school, because that's what they chose. But now it's clear there is not much future.

"Laurel Park had a lovely ethos, but the idea of picketing parents suggests that that ethos has been killed off. It means Laurel Park as a school we know is finished, whether now or in a couple of years."

In 1990-91, Glasgow Academy, one of the most famous boys' schools in the city, merged with Westbourne girls' school to become co-educational and it has since attracted more pupils from Park school and Laurel Bank, the two west end private schools for girls which later merged to produce Laurel Park.

Many academy boys have sisters at Laurel Park (annual fees from P1 pound;3,500 to S6 pound;5,300) and such has been the interest from Laurel Park parents since the "Hutchie" merger was tabled a few weeks ago that Glasgow Academy, with a pupil roll of 1,130 (annual fees nursery pound;1,800 to S6 pound;5,400), has had to reprint hundreds of copies of its prospectus. Prior to last week, Mr Comins was dealing with around 200 applicants for next session. He now has 348 applications, 116 of them from Laurel Park.

"We'd welcome Laurel Park pupils here," says Mr Comins. "Between us, the independent schools in Glasgow have room to take them.

"I think Kelvinside has most space and I'm actually surprised they didn't merge, as geographically they're much closer than Hutchesons'."

In fact, both Glasgow and Kelvinside academies were approached by Laurel Park's solicitors. "We did receive a letter from the Edinburgh branch of their solicitors," says Mr Comins, "though they did not say who they were representing and the confidentiality terms were punitive. Rather than sign a blank cheque, we asked for more details and they never got back. But, yes, we would have considered ways of helping out as far as possible.

"It wouldn't have been a merger a la Hutchie, as that would dilute the experience of our pupils here.

"You have to put the 400 Laurel Park girls centre picture. They are the ones that matter.

"Some of their parents will not buy into Hutchie because of the lack of consultation. I'm sure Laurel Park intended to do it in a much more managed way. I've heard stories of a leak that has now put them on the back foot all the time."

Consultation with parents and with staff is perhaps the most crucial element in any schools merger, according to the experiences of Glasgow Academy and Westbourne teachers. The lack of parental consultation appears to have been Laurel Park's big mistake.

In the case of Glasgow Academy, questionnaires were sent out to parents and the merger began to happen when teachers began to talk and develop a common curriculum. "We did this a year prior to the merger," says P5 teacher Fiona Halliday.

Joan Deane, a former Westbourne teacher, now depute head at Glasgow Academy Preparatory (primary) school, recalls: "We were shocked at first and slightly dismayed, much like the staff and pupils at Laurel Park now. But we were consulted and once it was signed and sealed we had to move forward. It wasn't easy for either school.

"The prep school here had to be refurbished. P4 to P7 came together in August 1990 but all the infants went to Westbourne until Easter 1991. We had a split campus and it took two years for the senior girls to come.

"The staff got together over a year. We took the best from both curriculums and 5 to 14 documents helped us to merge successfully."

Although the proposed merger between Laurel Park and Hutchesons' is different in many respects (Hutchie is already co-ed, four or five times the size of Laurel Park and miles from the latter's traditional west-end catchment area), the merged staff at the Academy are adamant that there have been no disadvantages whatsoever in their own merger and, indeed, many advantages, not least what they regard as the healthier, more natural environment of a co-educational establishment.

Laurel Park parents have nothing to fear from the co-education aspect of any merger, say Academy staff. Maggie Price, another former Westbourne teacher and now principal teacher of English at the Academy, says dovetailing the English curriculum was done gradually and easily to the benefit of both sexes.

"The classes were sparkier and more fun to teach," she points out. "Looking at literature from the male and female perspectives makes both sexes clarify their thoughts on important aspects of literature that deals with relationships, motivation, power struggles and emotions."

Fran MacDonald, another Westbourne teacher who is now principal teacher of chemistry, says this applies equally to science subjects.

"Science is about questioning and co-educational girls are more pushy, less accepting of facts as facts. Their problem solving has improved dramatically," she says.

Mrs MacDonald does, however, recall that the boys were "so aggressive" at first. "The further up the school, the more difficult it was.

"If a boy insults a boy, it's forgotten. If a girl insults a girl, it's remembered for 20 years. If a boy insults a girl, it's a disaster.

"This place was a jungle when we came down from Westbourne. The girls had a definite civilising influence."

Though Mr Comins did not become rector until 1994, after the merger, he notes: "The boys have become more gracious, especially the seniors. Co-education helps enormously with drama, debating, music and the creative arts in general and this is probably more to the advantage of the boys."

In Mr Comins's view, it is not just a matter of socialising the boys or of accessing a gender balance in expressive arts that counts. Overall attainment has improved due to co-education, he argues.

"We have looked at attainment every year, looking at the boys' and girls' results separately, and there has been no discernible difference on any gender basis from the merger right up until today. But attainment has gone up in general. Last summer we had our best Standard grades ever and there has also been a steady improvement in Higher and A-level results over the past few years.

"We're in The Sunday Times top 10 league table for Scotland. We intend to move up and hopefully maybe reach number one before I retire!" Advantages accrued from the merger, as listed by the staff, range from the upgrading of classroom accommodation, more and better facilities and clubs for the pupils to the introduction of setting for the Westbourne girls.

The teachers deny that the boys are more demanding or attention seeking, arguing that such matters are more related to personality than gender. All have classes where they say the girls dominate rather than the boys. And since the co-ed merger, the school has been more successful in attracting more pupils.

"When pushed, the girls did once complain that the boys wouldn't let them play football in the playground with them," says Ian Shirley, principal teacher of biology. "But that was the only discrimination they complained of."

As for the staff, he says: "Some staff from Westbourne didn't fit in. They were a bit resistant, due largely to ignorance, but they were soon dispatched," affecting the manner of Gilbert and Sullivan's Lord High Executioner.

No one was actually dismissed. A few took early retirement.

If some of the Westbourne ladies couldn't come to terms with a more male environment, the opposite was true too.

"It came as a great shock to some," remembers the assistant principal of English, Nigel Spike. "Imagine it! Girls, of the opposite sex! Prior to the merger, boys were often addressed simply by their surnames. Well, you couldn't do that with girls. It kick-started us rather late into the 20th century. It's the best thing since sliced bread."

All the staff I spoke to, from the rector down, claimed to be convinced co-educationalists, even though many had taught in single sex schools. Equally, most argued that there was a case to retain single sex schools if parents wanted that option.

Many of the staff had children of their own at both schools before and during the merger days and each remembered only positive comments and attitudes from their offspring as regarding both classroom and playground experiences.

This was largely echoed by a group of senior pupils. S6 boys Ross Campbell and Keith Scott admitted to growing up a bit more quickly and developing better social skills because the girls were around. Not only was there more bullying and roughness before the merger, but now the girls were also have a calming influence in classes.

S4 pupil Madeleine Burns remembers the "awkward" and "curious" boys who pushed the girls around in Primary 2, when she first came.

S6 pupil Jennifer Howie agrees: "The boys gave you a bit of the harshness and that encouraged you to stand up for yourself. I know it sounds quite cheesey, but it makes your personality."

The most assertive of the senior group was Laura Hogg, who came from Laurel Park last year. "Moving here was the best decision I ever made. Being co-educational, it's a more content environment. It's much friendlier and happier.

"Laurel Park was uncomfortable, with it being all girls. Co-education breaks up the tension that can arise between the girls with lots of cliques and groups. Socialising should be enjoyable. I felt a social retard at one point. It was a very unnatural environment and no preparation for the big, bad world."

But with the increase in staffing costs proposed by the Scottish Executive's post-McCrone inquiry settlement - which cannot but have influenced Laurel Park's decision to call it a day - how will the independent Glasgow Academy meet the financial burden?

"We are very strong financially," says Mr Comins. "We are confident we can reward our teachers appropriately without putting an enormous financial burden on our parents.

"Staffing costs are 70 per cent of our spend and yet we've spent a lot of money recently on facilities. We have no long or short term worries, though we will not be complacent either. I'm very optimistic.

"Established in 1845, we were the first independent school in Glasgow. We know what we're doing."

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