As a visitor to Shrewsbury School enters the main school gates and drives down the tree-lined avenue of ‘Central’, they will see in front of them the statue of one of the school’s most famous former pupils: Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species and widely regarded as the founding father of evolutionary biology. Gazing into the distance on his Galapagos rock, he represents innovation, endeavour, and the boldness of change.
Founded by Royal Charter in 1552, Shrewsbury School would undergo a significant evolutionary change of its own in 2008 when its sixth form became co-educational after over 450 years of existence as a boys’ school. Whilst a controversial decision amongst a small handful of opponents to the move, the transition was a smooth one and led, in 2014, to girls being invited to join at the traditional first entry point of the Third Form (Year 9). Full co-education has been fully embraced and represents an exciting new chapter in the life of the school.
There are, of course, challenges in adapting to full co-education, principle amongst these the rebalancing of the school roll and its impact on the infrastructure of the school. Significant work over the past 10 years has been done in adapting the campus to one that supports the co-educational vision and at the start of this academic year, Moser’s Hall will be officially opened as the fourth girls’ boarding house at Shrewsbury with over 30% of the school population now female, an important milestone in the co-educational journey.
With challenge comes opportunity, and on a sporting front, these were considerable. Shrewsbury has always enjoyed an enviable reputation for the quality and breadth of its sporting offering with facilities and grounds to match the passion, enthusiasm and energy of its coaching staff and common room. The writer Sir Neville Cardus famously described the campus as possessing, “the most beautiful playing fields in the world, spreading and imperceptibly mingling with the pastoral land of Shropshire”. It is the perfect setting for a keen sportsman or, indeed, sportswoman.
In a co-educational landscape, those playing fields remain at the very heart of the campus though football, rugby and cricket pitches have now been joined by lacrosse pitches, netball courts and two new hockey astroturfs. This is, of course, what you would expect from a co-ed school, and certainly Shrewsbury has a burgeoning reputation on a regional level in these sports.
However, the sporting vision has sought to be bolder in its aims and rather than merely offering the more traditional girls’ sports, the emphasis has been on developing opportunities for girls in the school’s historic ‘major’ sports: cricket, fives, football, rowing and running (known as ‘The Hunt’). As Director of Sport Andrew Murfin explains, “The introduction of girls to Shrewsbury has given us the chance to do something special: a chance for them to participate, on an equal footing, in our traditional sports. We have been keen to ensure that the girls are supported in these sports and that they are able to reach the same level of success as the boys.”
Our view has been that if we are a co-educational school, then why limit that to the classroom, or the theatre, or the concert hall? Why isn’t our sport truly co-educational, too? So our girls run in the same squads as our boys, they play fives in mixed format, they row with the same national aspirations as our boys, they can take advantage of our exciting and fast-developing girls’ cricket programme, and they can even play football with the boys if they want to. Last year, Nina Lange made history by becoming the first female pupil at Shrewsbury School to play for the 1st XI football team, a squad who reached the semi-finals of the national ISFA competition and were widely regarded as one of the best teams in recent years. Nina earned her place in that squad and when she scored her first goal for the 1st XI, it was a goal cheered from the sidelines by girls and boys alike.
With strong role models amongst the girls and, crucially, strong female role models amongst the staff, sport for girls has thrived in the co-educational era, ably steered by Head of Girls’ Games, Nicola Bradburne.
Whilst still a minority within the school, the girls have shone in the sporting arena and for those of us who have been part of that evolutionary journey, it has been a great joy to witness the pioneering spirit of that first generation of female Salopians. Whether on hockey field or fives court, cross-country course or cricket pitch, they are proud to represent Shrewsbury School, and we are proud of them. The landscape is still evolving, but if the last 10 years are anything to go by, the future for both boys and girls sport at Shrewsbury looks very promising indeed.