In some ways I am delighted that diamond schools are suddenly making the national news headlines. Whilst the current focus on our model of education brought about by the recent findings of the Appeal Court with regard to the Al-Hijrah School – essentially that the separation of the sexes practised by that school was unlawful – is challenging, it does allow us once again the opportunity to explain what it is that makes the diamond model so attractive – and so successful – here at Dame Allan’s.
There is, of course, a certain illogicality in criticising the diamond model whilst extolling the virtues of a wholly single sex education – a position taken this week by the Chief Inspector of that same Ofsted which pursued the Al-Hijrah School through the courts. It is, indeed, difficult to see how keeping pupils separate within one building is in any way different to educating them in wholly separate buildings. However, this is not to deny that the diamond model may be used as a means to provide less favourable treatment to either boys or girls. In a properly regulated diamond school, this cannot and must not be the case; the evidence of our practice at Dame Allan’s shows that it is not.
The clearest measure of a lack of discrimination lies in the fact that curricular provision for boys and girls is equal in the schools. The last quirk (whereby boys in Year 8 studied more PE and less RS than their girl counterparts) was eliminated over a decade ago when I joined the schools. No subject is offered exclusively to one gender, though our previous technology offering at Key Stage 4 (electronic products) attracted very few girls. This was a contributory factor in encouraging our move to product design in 2015; a change which now sees full sets of girls studying the subject at Key Stage 4. We continue to work on bucking the national trend with regard to girls and computer science though recognise there is still work to be done in this area – our female Head of Computing and ICT has set this as a clear target for herself! More generally there is no gender segregation in any of our teacher allocation; boys and girls are taught by women and men according to departmental allocations.
The evidence of curricular outcomes suggests that, far from reinforcing gender stereotypes at Key Stage 5, the diamond model serves to weaken them. Thus for example, we have more girls studying A-level physics than the sector average for co-educational schools and 2014–2016 saw significantly more boys studying A-level French than girls. This is a part of the rationale behind our employment of the diamond model. We further believe that it allows teachers to focus on the specific needs of different gender groupings. We are acutely aware of the need to exercise care here – not all boys behave in a stereotypically ‘boy’ way, nor do all girls share the same characteristics. For our staff, as for any good teachers, the need to differentiate teaching according to the needs of their individual pupils (boys or girls) is paramount. However, given that caveat, we believe there is sufficient difference between the ways in which boys and girls learn to make teaching them separately a valid approach. Most notable is the fact that boys tend to mature more slowly than girls and therefore risk lagging behind in co-educational classes – certainly at Key Stage 3. At Key Stage 4, the absence of the opposite sex in the classroom allows young people to take more risks without the fear of embarrassment which can adversely impact on both boys and girls in their teenage years.
And the virtues of the model extend beyond the classroom; we regard the diamond model as vital for pastoral reasons. The issues with which boys and girls typically present do differ and our model allows the separate pastoral teams of the boys’ and girls’ schools to deploy their expertise in dealing with those issues. It also means that we have four small pastoral units (juniors’, boys’, girls’ and sixth form) each of which consists of staff who know their pupils very well. Where there are disciplinary issues to be addressed, it is worthy of note that the school rules – and, indeed, all school policies – are the same for both schools.
Nor are boys and girls separated for anything other than classroom teaching. The history of the schools is significant here. Until the creation of the diamond model Dame Allan’s Boys and Dame Allan’s Girls were wholly separate institutions, despite occupying the same building. Lunch was taken separately, the schools started and ended the day at different times and even holiday dates were not aligned. There were penalties for mixing between the schools. With the creation of a mixed sixth form in 1988, however, the situation changed, with the result that now all cross-curricular activities (with the exception of sport) are run co-educationally and pupils are allowed to mix freely at break and lunchtime.
We also have both separate school and mixed assemblies; the programmes for the former being almost exactly similar. That creation of a mixed sixth form was a vital part of the schools’ development. Our pupils now leave for higher education or employment having experienced academic work and school life in a co-educational environment; we believe this is a realistic preparation for a world which is, after all, co-educational and, in that sense, provides much better life experiences than a wholly single sex school.
Dr John Hind
We also believe it is important to model an appropriate gender balance amongst the schools’ leadership. My bursar is female and I have a female and a male vice-principal. The leadership team overall consists of five men and four women. The schools’ chairman is male and his deputy female. At the pupil level, our 14 officers (senior prefects) are chosen equally from the boys’ and girls’ schools, with each contributing a head of school and six other officers.
The schools’ history as separate institutions gives the lie to any suggestion that there may be less favourable treatment of either sex. If the assumption is that girls may suffer in such an environment, then the existence of many distinguished former members of the girls’ school provides an immediate counter, with our governing body alone during my tenure as head containing two former pupils of the girls’ school of high standing – one as Pro-Chancellor of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and another as professor of both mathematics and physics at the University of Durham.
In short, we operate a diamond model because we believe it to be in the best interest of all of our pupils: both our academic results and our reputation for excellent pastoral care of our pupils bear that out.
For further information about Dame Allan’s Schools, please visit: dameallans.co.uk