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The Introduction of Girls to Kingham Hill School

Michael Payne, Headmaster from 1990-2000 looks back to 1992 when girls first joined Kingham School.

I was appointed Head at the school in September 1990. Prior to joining the school I had served for some time in the army and then taught at St Edward’s School in Oxford for 16 years.

In many ways I was the least likely person to be interested in coeducation. I had been to an all boys school, there were no women at Sandhurst nor in any of the military units I served with, and I read for my degree at the all male Royal Military College of Science. It wasn’t until I started at St Edward’s, in my 30s, that I first encountered a female colleague and there were only a couple of them then. Towards the end of my time at St Edward’s the school started to introduce girls into the sixth form and because there were only a handful they were accommodated with members of staff, and we hosted some girls for a couple of years. What I noted was the positive effect this had on the school as a whole. The girls found that boys were much bolder in the lessons than they had experienced in their previous all-girls schools, and the boys became much more rounded as they heard opinions from a different perspective. Those who anticipated there being a lot of disruption were disappointed.

On arrival at Kingham Hill I think it is fair to say that it was quite a macho environment. Voices were raised quite a lot. The rugby field and the assault course were the places where people made their names. And whilst I too am a keen rugby supporter and having done the para course in the army appreciated the lessons learnt on the assault course, it did seem to lack something.

My wife Nicola and I have 2 daughters, the elder of whom had just left school when we arrived and the younger moved from an all girls’ school to a coeducational sixth form. Watching her develop in this environment certainly influenced my thinking. She loved it, made better progress than at her previous school, and had lots of chums who just happened to be boys! There didn’t seem to be any negatives.

During the early 90s the hostile economic climate was having a serious effect on independent schools. Selective day schools and the big prestigious schools managed to ride the storm, but small, non selective schools, and particular country boarding schools, were under severe threat and many closed at this time. Kingham Hill was fortunate to have the Trust behind it to provide short term cover but this couldn’t continue indefinitely.

Having assessed the situation I put the proposal to the governing body that we should consider a move to coeducation. Slightly to my surprise this was met with agreement very quickly so it was full steam ahead to admit girls in September 1993.

The first decision to be made was whether this should be phased, e.g. start with 1st form or perhaps 6th form and expand from there. Because the school is small we decided that it would take years for girls to become fully established rather than a novelty, so we decided to accept girls in all year groups from the beginning. How do you persuade parents to be the first ones to entrust their precious daughters to an isolated boarding school (98% boys boarding at the time) with no track record with girls? The answer is, despite our efforts, with difficulty. In the meantime I visited a few schools that had been fully coeducational for some time (Dean Close in Cheltenham being one) and then looked at our facilities and what needed to be provided.

With only a couple of months before the start of term we had only about half a dozen firm applicants. We decided that they could be accommodated in the head’s house and that Nicola would look after them. In the meantime she had planned the uniform and other things for the girls. Needless to say we were disappointed that we had so few girls and wondered if this really would work or would it collapse.

We then heard that Hatherop Castle school, a girls’ prep school near Cirencester taking girls to 13 years old, had decided to reduce the top age to 11 years old, so suddenly there were a number of their girls looking for a new school. Fortunately for us, one of these had a brother at Kingham Hill and as they were keen to remain together, we suddenly had an intake of over 20 girls. To my wife’s relief they couldn’t fit in our house so Severn House, which had been closed for the previous year for renovation was sprung into action. Thanks particularly to our Bursar Trevor Spry and his team for seeing this through. We had recently appointed Steve Hayes as our new chaplain and when we approached his wife Rosie, she agreed to them becoming the first house parents of our first girls’ house. Phew!

It was amazing how quickly the girls assimilated into the life of the school. They involved themselves in all aspects of school life with some loving the CCF and assault course, and some gifted musicians adding to the musical life of the school. The boys soon just saw them as fellow pupils and good friends. The number of girls grew and a second girls house, Greenwich, had opened before my departure in 2000. This has gone from strength to strength and I understand at the time of writing 45% of the pupils are now girls and the total number of pupils is at a record high. Thanks to my successors’ efforts, both of the original aims have been realised.

Michael Payne, Headmaster from 1990-2000