In my time as a pupil at a private “boys’ school”, I don’t think I ever anticipated fully the extent to which moving out of my single-sex school would be as much of a culture shock as it became. The adjustment is something that, at one time not too long ago, students would never have had to make: most would graduate from an overwhelmingly male environment at school to an overwhelmingly male environment at university, slipping comfortably into an overwhelmingly male landscape in public life. The latter two have (to some extent) faced changes and while a decrepit yet dominant inequality persists in these spaces, us men are no longer entirely playing a man’s game.
As a student at a boys-only private school nestled in a comfortable part of London, I was aware that I might be on the verge of leaving a bit of a bubble without too much difficulty. While going to a “boys’ school” of course doesn’t prevent its pupils from befriending girls their own age it does at least guarantee that a sizeable majority of people a developing teenager gets to know best–the peers they interact with on a daily basis and are in some small, imperceptible ways moulded by–are teenage boys. A few people had no female friends their own age, growing up in a sheltered social sphere that could have seriously hampered their ability to mature into empathetic and understanding adults.
To be clear, attending a single-sex private school, while it may have disadvantages, is in general a great privilege; in many cases these schools have a wealth of brilliant teachers and cutting-edge educational resources. However, one has to think that the gender-exclusionary aspect of these schools reflects a world that is beginning to vanish. The structural shock of suddenly entering a mixed-sex environment is something that can be hard to properly acknowledge without it being felt.
It would be difficult for me to know the extent to which this warped social environment was responsible for the sniggering disdain that many (although certainly not all) students held for arguments about modern feminism or gender inequality, but such an attitude was very frequently left unchallenged. Attractive young female teachers were talked of in more complimentary terms than those older female teachers just as qualified and intelligent. It was always cringe-worthy to sit in an assembly about the state of women’s rights and watch as the hands of bolshie 16-year-olds in the audience shot up with a smug “Uh, I think you’ll find…” attitude behind them.
Again, I sincerely appreciate the opportunities that my all-boys school gave me and other pupils. I made friends with some fantastic people, I was privileged to be given access to so many extracurricular opportunities, and some of my favourite teachers inspired me to pursue the degree I’m studying today. None of this changes the damaging effects of limiting the student pool along the lines of gender, as the artificially-engineered bubble showed itself to be arbitrary at best. At worst it can be construed as an Edwardian relic that continues to warp the social sphere for many of its students.