With a heritage of nearly 150 years as an all-boys school, Wellington College admits that its switch a decade ago to becoming fully co-educational is still a work in progress.
At meal times, boys and girls spontaneously segregate themselves along gender lines, and the house system at the prestigious Berkshire independent school – which traditionally educated army officers’ sons – remains single-sex.
Now, in an attempt to address the issue, Wellington has invited a transgender woman to speak to pupils and raise awareness about unconscious bias and sexual stereotyping.
Deputy headteacher Cressida Henderson told TES that last week’s talk from Rikki Arundel about how society viewed her differently after she became a woman was “terrific”.
“For the kids it was an initial shock when she first spoke, because her voice is deep and resonant,” Ms Henderson said. “Then it gave way to interest, a bit of outrage, a bit of laughter – it was an extremely good and impactful way of getting the ball rolling.”
It was the first time that Ms Arundel, who works to promote transgender awareness, had addressed a group of schoolchildren. She said it was important to give them the opportunity to debate gender issues.
“When the pupils go out in the workplace, they are going to be more fair,” she said. “They are going to treat everybody for who they are rather than according to some stereotypical views about what they should be.”
Ms Arundel added: “When I changed gender, I realised how much discrimination women face on a daily basis. If you’ve always been discriminated against you might not notice it, but I was coming from a position of male privilege.”
The great dining hall divide
The talk was part of a day dedicated to gender equality, designed to help pupils at Wellington – two-fifths of whom are girls – question their preconceptions about what it means to be “male” or “female”.
Ms Henderson said: “Some of our speakers asked us, ‘Do we have an issue with gender equality?’ And I think the answer is ‘Yes, like the rest of society’.
“Our issues are associated with our context, as we have been a boys’ school for over 150 years and a successful co-ed one for 10 years. So we see ourselves as on a journey and there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Pupils were given the chance to discuss topics such as whether children learn better in mixed or single-sex groups, participation in sport, issues around careers and leadership, education and body image.
Ms Henderson said that one problem covered was the so-called “great dining hall divide”, where boys and girls chose to sit apart from each other, despite the best efforts of staff to encourage them to mingle. Discussions revealed that the pressure was often on the boys. Girls were happy to mix in the dining hall, but boys might be mocked for sitting with them. “It cuts both ways all the time,” Ms Henderson added.
Gaps in the curriculum
The event has been praised by academics examining how to promote gender equality in education, although they stressed that schools should also use the curriculum and anti-bullying policies to tackle the issue.
This week, the newly launched Women’s Equality Party called for schools to carry out a “gender audit” of their curriculum and raised the idea of gender quotas for primary teachers and heads.
Jessica Ringrose, professor of sociology of gender and education at the UCL Institute of Education (IoE), said: “I really applaud what [Wellington] are doing because there are real gaps in the common curriculum. Bearing in mind that’s an elite school, we need to have gender equality on the agenda in all schools.”
She highlighted a new pilot project: the Gender Equality Leadership in Schools Network, which encourages institutions to set up lunchtime and after-school clubs to discuss feminism and gender equality issues.
Nine schools are taking part in the scheme, a collaboration between the Gender and Education Association, IoE academics and pressure group UK Feminista.
Earlier this month Vivienne Durham, headteacher of the all-girls Francis Holland School in London, argued that teenage girls were being held back in co-educational schools. The risk of failure in a mixed-gender environment meant that many girls felt “self-conscious” and unable to answer questions, leading to them “clamming up”, she said.
Richard Cairns, headteacher of the co-educational Brighton College, accused Ms Durham of being “breathtakingly patronising”, claiming that boys’ schools bred casual sexism and were socially divisive.
Raising the profile of gender issues
The TES website has a wide range of resources on gender, covering topics such as the mass media, stereotyping and crime: bit.ly/GenderResources
Activist group UK Feminista runs free workshops about gender inequality for schools in London, the South East, Birmingham and the Black Country. The workshops are aimed at boys and girls aged 14-18. Find out more at ukfeminista.org.uk
The Gender and Education Association aims to challenge sexism within and through education. Its website provides useful links and articles: genderandeducation.com