It's time Eton went co-ed
The world order would not collapse if there were female Old Etonians – in fact it would be markedly improved
WHEN you have been doing the same thing for nearly six centuries, you might want to ask yourself whether it is still a good idea.
After all, things that worked in the 1440s – such as the reestablishment of the European slave trade – may not necessarily work all that well in the 2020s. When Henry VI founded Eton as a college for seventy poor children back in the mid-15th century – a decade before the building of Machu Picchu! – I doubt that it occurred to him that half should be female, while if a monarch were founding such a school today, the notion of making it single-sex would almost see him dethroned.
In essence, this is the biggest reason why Eton only educates boys – because it always has. Proponents of single-sex education will come up with all sorts of reasons as to why it is better to educate boys apart from girls, but this ignores the simple and unalienable fact which was crisply put to me by a very good friend – life is co-ed. And if education is to be not just a process of learning things, but also about learning how to become a reasonably functional adult, then it makes overwhelming sense to educate boys and girls together.
The supposed merits of tradition cannot trump this, and neither can saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, because the simple reason is that in some ways Eton – and the handful of other all-male public schools – are indeed broken. By educating intelligent boys on their own in towers of privilege, you create a coterie of men who are at once influential and capable, and yet often lacking the emotional intelligence and sensitivity that would make them better – and perhaps greater! – men. The products of the existing system are all around us, and they’re often not that pretty or functional. We all know who I mean.
I should here declare an interest – I am a product of that system. I went to Eton from 1984 to 1989, and I was happy. It was a good school – a very good school of course – and I made some very good friends. I look back on my days there with fondness, and I’ve never been one of those Eton-bashing Old Etonians who professes deep loathing for the place.
And while I enjoyed myself there, and left with a spring in my step ready to take on the world, I was aware that in one important way the school had badly let me down – I knew almost nothing about how to interact with women. Furthermore, because I lacked sisters, I had therefore spent almost my first eighteen years in all-male company.
While I did have some female friends, I regarded them as somehow other, or as an occasional treat – a bit like champagne. And although I knew women were human beings, I felt that my ability to communicate with them was little better than my ability to communicate with dogs. Or goldfish.
This seemed to be unfortunate, as I had been led to understand there were quite a lot of women around, and yet there I was, the recipient of the finest education on the planet, and yet largely incapable of dealing with half the people on it. That didn’t seem right. In short, my brilliant school had left me only partially-educated.
What have been the effects on me, and others like me?
On a relatively benign level, it made me shy around women. But worse, I’ve no doubt that it fuelled the sexist idea that women were intellectually inferior. A lack of female friends and girlfriends also led to objectification. By extension, an absence of relationships also led to emotional immaturity and insecurity when I eventually did have girlfriends. And when I started working with women, I guess I found it difficult that some of them had authority. But fundamentally I just thought that women were ‘different’.
Of course, these problems are not exclusive to those who have attended all-male public schools. But I can’t help but feel that had I been educated with girls then I would have left Eton as a far more rounded and sophisticated 17-year-old. (I’m an August baby.) In short – I would have had a better education. I look at my own children – one the product of a co-ed school, and the other at a co-ed school – and I envy their ability to get on with the opposite sex. I have no doubt that they are far better equipped for the world than I was at their ages.
So much for the effects on the pupils. What would be the effects on Eton if it let in the ‘monstrous regiment’? Traditionalists might fear that the Founder’s statue would go into a giddy spin and Lupton’s Tower would crumble, but I think Eton would adjust to having girls just as well as all the other schools – both state and private – that have made the same leap.
Yes, I suppose some things would change, but I can’t immediately work out what they might be, and even if I could, I’m not sure that whatever they were would be much missed. Eton would, I have no doubt at all, still be very Etony.
Besides, Eton has educated girls, and the school somehow survived when, back in the mid-1980s, it educated some twenty girls for the now defunct seventh ‘Oxbridge’ term. One of the girls was my old friend and former colleague at The Times, Katherine Bergen, and as she recounts here, barring moments of ‘excruciating self-consciousness’ and bashfulness, the experiment seems to have been successful.
It seems a shame that Eton didn’t continue producing ‘Old Etoniennes’ – although surely they would today have to be called just ‘Old Etonians’ – but no doubt the traditionalists had their way.
It’s time that Eton made the leap. It seems ridiculous that the school will let in boys from extremely diverse backgrounds, cultures and countries, and yet bar girls – many of whom of course will come from similar backgrounds to many of the boys. The presence of girls would be good for the school, and a far better way of demonstrating that it is truly enlightened than any number of ‘awareness’ programmes. More importantly, it would be good for the pupils, both male and female, who would go on to be better adults and perhaps more capable of being influential members of society.
Ultimately, it would mean that Eton would finally produce that elusive thing, something for which it has been striving since 1440 – a truly well-rounded education.
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