Rugby's Boys Tackle an Upstart Girl

Naming of head student sparks protests at crusty British school

IT took 428 years for Rugby School, in England's Warwickshire County, to appoint its first head girl.

But that was too soon for the boys at one of the country's oldest and most distinguished educational institutions.

Five hundred of them mutinied earlier this month when Headmaster Michael Mavor, announced a decision to appoint 17-year-old Louise Woolcock joint head pupil - an informal leader of students chosen by the headmaster on the basis of character.

They left their dormitories at dead of night and plastered school buildings with posters denouncing the move. Louise will now have the power to order the detention of pupils of both sexes, instruct boys (and girls) to wash dishes in the school kitchens, and report cases of misbehavior to the headmaster.

The following day, a group boycotted a chapel service, and protesters accused Mr. Mavor of "pandering to political correctness."One poster pasted up 80 feet high on a school building declared: "We're not racist, prejudiced, or sexist - we're just traditionalist."

Another asserted: "Girls don't play rugby. Boys don't play netball [a kind of basketball]."

At Rugby School in 1823, a pupil fed up with having to use only his feet in playing soccer, seized a football in his hands and began to run with it, thus inventing the game of rugby.

Along with Eton, Harrow, and Winchester, Rugby is widely seen as one of England's most prestigious schools. In English parlance, Rugby is a "public" school, which actually means it is private - with steep fees (about $18,500 a year) and restricted entry. Louise reached Rugby from a day school at Oxford where she had a strong academic record.

Even before he decided to break with ancient precedent and appoint her joint head pupil with Huw Brown, Mavor had acquired a reputation as an innovator. Rugby began accepting girls into its top grade in 1975, but for Mavor that was not progress enough. Two years ago he made the school fully coeducational by allowing female pupils to join at age 13, on a par with boys. There are now 180 girls studying at Rugby.

Mavor's impatience to achieve a better gender balance appears to have irritated militant male pupils.

Defending their actions, they pointed out that Louise had not joined at the age of 13 and worked her way up to a senior position, as they had done. She arrived only last year.

Edward Colver, captain of the school's rugby team, says her late arrival is the real issue. "It's not so much the girl that's the problem," he says. "It's the principle of the matter. A girl who has been here for a year doesn't know the school."

Another protester complains that "Mr. Mavor has made a rookie soldier into a general overnight.

But the headmaster is sticking to his guns, and Louise is hanging on to her general's baton. Answering calls from militant boys that she should resign, she says coolly, "I'm not quitting. The boys should start living in the 20th century."

"This is a great honor, which is going to stay with me for the rest of my life," she adds.

"It's a healthy tradition for there to be open expression of opinion, but breaking school rules is ill-advised," Mavor says. He confirmed that the boys who boycotted the chapel service, which was marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Arnold (the school's most famous headmaster, whose reformist career inspired the novel "Tom Brown's Schooldays"), had been punished by being confined to the school for 24 hours.

The group of approximately 20 protesters, however, seemed unimpressed by the headmaster's strictures. Forty-eight hours after their initial protest, they entered the school chapel at night and slipped hundreds of printed leaflets inside hymn books.

When pupils filed into chapel the next morning, they got another blast of male chauvinist dissent.

Louise joins a growing group of girls who have achieved senior positions in English schools and colleges. Miriam Lwanga of Uganda broke 14 centuries of tradition when she was appointed head girl of The King's School, Canterbury - Britain's oldest school, founded in AD 597 - after it went coeducational in 1990. Miriam's advice to Louise is: "Establish the boys' respect."

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