BTWO of Scotland's original ``bluestocking'' independent girls schools are to merge.

Laurel Bank School and The Park School in the West End of Glasgow are to join forces as Laurel Park School in a move which, it was conceded yesterday, would surprise parents.

Laurel Bank, which has 370 pupils, was founded in 1903 to give girls educational opportunities which until then had been offered only to boys.

Park, with 254 pupils, was founded in 1880 to prepare girls for adulthood and open the door to university.

The merger of two schools which have competed for the best part of a century reflects the increasingly competitive nature of private education.

Laurel Bank approached Park about amalgamation. The new school is aiming for a roll of about 550 and hopes to secure its share of an increasingly competitive market by offering more options, improved facilities, and the benefits which come from economies of scale.

Mr Michael Walker, chairman of the board of governors at Park who will also chair the Laurel Park board, said the merger recognised that the world was changing.

``It is becoming increasingly expensive to provide the kind of education people want from independent schools and, with the traditions of the two schools, it seemed to make sense to pull them together.

``It came down to making a judgment about whether we wanted to go into the twenty-first century charging ahead, which I think is desirable, or satisfactorily wandering into it under increasing pressure from costs and everything else,'' he said.

There are very few single-sex boys' schools left in the Scottish independent sector, which caters for the education of 4% of the country's pupils.

Girls' schools, however, have fought hard to maintain their status and are popular with parents who believe that their daughters do better in single-sex establishments.

Girls schools also tend to be smaller which, they argue, allows their pupils to develop their intellectual faculties and interests away from the tensions which can arise during adolescence in co-educational establishments.

Mr Walker commented: ``It has been said that the single-sex environment enables girls to take an intellectual risk.

``When they are surrounded by boys they are less likely to put forward a challenging view for fear of being thought of as silly.''

With the glass ceiling, which prevented women from advancing in their careers, disappearing in the professions, it was all the more important to educate girls to the highest level, he continued.

Mrs Fiona Sandford, chairwoman of Laurel Bank board of governors, who will be vice-chairwoman of the new school board, said: ``Both schools have a long history of competition and co-operation and the same single-minded dedication to the education of girls.

``By combining, we believe we can offer a single-sex education which will be the equal of the larger co-education schools.

``We want to give the girls all the options and benefits they would expect in these schools but because we are smaller we can give individual attention, which our parents value highly.

``I think that initially there will be surprise among parents. They are obviously attached to the particular school their daughter attends but when we have the opportunity to talk to them and explain the rationale behind the decision, I am sure they will be as supportive as they have always been.''

The fees, which will be similar to those charged by the two separate schools, will range from #2583 a year in primary one to #3969 in senior sixth year.

However, no existing parent will lose out. Where there is a difference in charges for the same year group, the lower fee will apply in the new school.

Laurel Park will be based in Laurel Bank's building in Lilybank Terrace. Park's premises in Lynedoch Street will be offered for sale and are expected to realise a six-figure sum for the new school.

Mr Walker said the school would wait until it knew how many girls would attend before addressing the issue of surplus staff.

Mrs Judith Sischy, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, said the merger was ``very imaginative and good for both schools''.

She continued: ``Girls schools have maintained an up-front attitude to retaining their status and I think that has to do with the fact that they were founded by very brave, pioneering women who wanted to give women a chance.

``That is the root of their strength. They still feel that girls need an extra push. It is still a man's world.''