300 years in the making and still highly contemporary

John Hind (Dame Allan’s Schools) considers how the longstanding structure of his schools can help solve today’s puzzles in the education of girls and boys

At the risk of sounding like an underpowered A level candidate, I should perhaps start with a definition. A “diamond school” may be defined as educating its pupils co-educationally until the end of Key Stage 2, in separate-sex classes during Key Stages 3 and 4 then together again at Key Stage 5.

Among the 17 schools currently identifying as “diamond”, each institution has its own reasons for employing the model. At Dame Allan’s, we believe having boys and girls working together at junior level ensures there is none of the mystique about the opposite sex which can be generated in single-sex schools – something further reinforced by having pupils interact socially and in extra-curricular activities throughout the senior schools.

At Key Stages 3 and 4, education in separate sex groups enables us to recognise the different maturity rates of boys and girls and to amend our teaching accordingly. It also allows pupils to develop academic interests without either the self-consciousness that can inhibit classroom behaviour in mixed-sex classes or the gender stereotyping around subject choice that can apply in such circumstances.

As a result, we see large numbers of girls studying physics and boys studying modern languages at A level in a co-educational Sixth Form environment which, of course, replicates the default setting for the worlds of higher education and employment.

Allowing our pupils to experience this in a controlled environment where they are known and supported prepares them properly for the next steps in life.

This knowledge and support of pupils as individuals is a further important by-product of a model which sees a relatively large school of over 1,000 pupils divided into four distinct pastoral units (juniors, boys, girls and Sixth Form), each small enough to allow the staff managing them to have a real knowledge and understanding of their pupils as individuals.

Three hundred and fifteen years of educating boys and girls separately but together at Dame Allan’s suggests the model works, but that is not to say it is beyond challenge. The ramifications of the Al-Hijrah ruling will no doubt leave diamond schools with questions to answer, though any suggestion that a model of school organisation, rather than the actual practice in an individual school, is discriminatory per se seems difficult to sustain.

Dame Allan’s Schools were founded by Dame Eleanor Allan, the daughter of a Newcastle goldsmith and the widow of a wealthy tobacco merchant, to provide a ‘proper’ education for 40 poor boys and 20 poor girls in the city parishes of St Nicholas and St John.

Pupils from the boys’ school and girls’ school taking part in the newly formed Royal Marines Combined Cadet Force.

Quite why a school adopting a diamond structure might be deemed inherently more discriminatory than, say, a single-sex school in which pupils conform to outmoded and unacceptable gender stereotypes is entirely beyond me. Indeed, even orthodox co-educational schools – perhaps especially those in which one gender is numerically dominant – are not immune to gender stereotyping.

Perhaps a more pressing question for diamond schools is posed by the wider societal view of the gender continuum; if gender is increasingly seen as fluid, how can we justify a binary model based on sex at birth?

At its simplest level, diamond schools may find it easier to address the needs of trans pupils than orthodox co-educational schools – a pupil might simply join the section of the school related to the gender with which they identify.

At a much more complex level, meeting the needs of such pupils depends entirely on a school’s ability to identify, accept and respond to their needs. Not only is that just as possible in a diamond school as any other model of school organisation, I would further argue that the high quality of pastoral care a well-organised diamond school provides makes an appropriate response to such a situation an opportunity rather than a challenge.

Pupils from the Dame Allan’s boys’ and girls’ schools mix during break times and lunch.