Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital (QEH) is a grand building nestled behind the streets of central Bristol, and has admitted boys since its days as a school for orphans. In 2008, the school moved from a boarding to day school and now it has announced another sea change by deciding to admit girls into the sixth form from September 2017.
We met with headmaster, Stephen Holliday, to discuss the school’s history and how this momentous change came about.
“We’re 426 years old, which is quite old, and founded right in the city centre initially as a place for poor boys and orphans, hence the name ‘Hospital’ – they used to take people in and look after them,” Stephen says. “Lots of schools were called ‘Hospital’ as it happens, but most, quite sensibly, changed their names over the years and we never did. It used to be a boarding school, boarding ended here about eight years ago and we opened a junior school in its place which has been very successful, so we’re a day school for boys at the moment. We have 585 boys and we’re absolutely full! But we’ve decided to take some girls into the sixth form, which is a big change.
What led you to that decision?
“I’ve been asked by parents for many years, would you consider taking girls, always knowing that we were unlikely to because we didn’t have the space,” Stephen continues. “But we’ve now built a £3 million science development on a piece of land at [the other] end of the school, and an extension to the art department and more classrooms, and that means we’ve got more space. So now I can consider taking girls into the sixth form.”
I think, given that boys and girls have got different learning styles, it’s quite handy to keep them separate until they get to sixth form
Stephen has a clear policy: he believes in co-educational sixth form, but not in years seven to 11.
He says: “I can make a strong argument, as I have for many years, that boys and girls learn differently, grow in confidence, in different ways in years seven to 11, but when you get to the sixth form, I think those arguments are not quite as strong. Firstly, we’ve got a wonderful offer in terms of what we do here: academically, and in extra-curricular activities for girls to benefit from. I think a lot of girls might enjoy being in a relatively small sixth form, with strong pastoral care andlots of opportunities. Equally, I think our boys will benefit from having girls around, because whilst many boys have sisters and have friends at Redmaids’, Redland High and Badminton [nearby girls’ schools], some boys don’t really understand and meet girls meaningfully until they get to university and that’s a bit late, I think. They need to understand girls, learn to respect them, work alongside them, understand that they’ve got a different take on life, and I think that prepares them for university in the best possible way.”
In the past year we have heard from girls’ schools about benefits of single sex, but what are benefits for boys’ schools?
“It’s probably the same arguments that you hear from girls,” Stephen says. “I firmly believe that younger children learn in different ways. On the whole, boys like to learn by doing, by making, by being physically active as much as possible. A lot of boys are not to keen on written work, we have to really work at that and coax that out. Lots of boys like to learn by doing and making, by question and answer, but can’t be bothered writing it down. A lot of girls actually do like to spend time writing things down, making it look nice, presenting it beautifully, where boys will write a minimum, present it not very neatly, but a lot has gone in and a lot happened and they’ve learnt a lot through discussion and question and answer. So, I think, given that boys and girls have got different learning styles, it’s quite handy to keep them separate until they get to sixth form age.
“The other thing about being a single sex school is that girls and boys can develop confidence in different aspects and girls’ schools, sometimes you’ve got to persuade girls to do science and design and technology, if there are boys around – they seem to be ‘boy things’ and girls are more reluctant. Single sex girls’ education can actually teach girls that science is for everybody and design technology is for everybody. Similarly, here boys paint very sensitively in art, they write poetry, they’ll join the choir – we’ve got 100 boys in the choir. If we were a co-ed school, the choir would be a lot of girls and a few boys who could really sing. But the majority will think ‘perhaps that’s not quite for me to do’. It allows boys to develop their creativity and their sensitive side, which is really there and genuine, without the fear of thinking ‘is this a girl thing to do or is this a boy thing to do?’ Once they’ve got that confidence, they’re fine – but it takes a while so I think the arguments for single sex boys’ education are strong, and for single sex girls’ education, until you get to the sixth form where those arguments, by then, are getting a bit thin.”
So, is single sex about introducing children to subjects that are traditionally dominated by the opposite sex?
“I think it’s just about getting confidence, accepting that they learn in different ways, and therefore need to be taught in different ways. I’ve taught in three co-ed schools and the boys tend to sit on one side and the girls sit on the other and you’ve got to think, what the are girls going to enjoy in this lesson and what are the boys going to enjoy? How is my teaching going to get the best out of both groups? And the results show it – look at the single sex girls’ schools in Bristol and the single sex boys’ school (us) and we get better results than the co-ed schools. It does work, but we’ve had a lot of interest [in the move to co-ed].’
The new building has opened up other opportunities – the school will also be moving departments and expanding subjects such as music and technology. We ask what the impact of the sixth form going co-ed has had on the facilities.
“We have to do some pretty basic things like toilets, changing rooms and other predictable things,” Stephen says. “We’re expanding the sixth form centre, so not only will girls benefit from the new facilities but the existing boys moving up the school will benefit as well. The whole of the sixth form facilities will be considerably enlarged and modernised too.”
Stephen is not sure how many girls they will have in their first intake, but initial interest hints that they will fill capacity. He says: “I guess it will be 20 to 30 a year once we get going, so in total we’re somewhere around 40 to 60. I’m hoping to be over subscribed, and initial interest suggests that we will be.”
How have staff reacted to the change?
“The staff were absolutely delighted, parents are totally delighted, old boys – the vast majority – are very keen,” Stephen says. “I’ve had three letters from old boys saying ‘it’s the end of civilisation’, but on the other hand I’ve had hundreds of messages saying it’s great and that they wished it had happened in their time. The message has been overwhelmingly positive.“