Glasgow's three west-end girls' schools may soon be none. Tim Luckhurst reports

There were always three: Westbourne, Park, and Laurel Bank. They defined what it meant to be young, female, and fortunate in the west end of Glasgow. Everyone who was anyone attended one of them and their brothers went to Kelvinside or Glasgow Academy.

Life was simple - particu-larly because the uniforms were

instantly recognisable and nobody in Dino's Cafe on Sauchiehall Street could possibly make a mistake. Westbourne wore purple skirt and purple blazer combined with American-tan tights (which were reviled by the girls). Many preferred Park's elegant navy blue and olive green ensemble - especially the ''to die for'' blue blazers with their contrasting green collars. Nobody was too sure about Laurel Bank's plain green creations. The tie was a definite faux pas.

Westbourne and Park had

long abandoned such masculine

apparel in favour of pan collars. Uniforms were obtained from Daly's at Charing Cross until the runaway lorry from Garnethill hit it. Booklists were stocked by John Smith's on St Vincent's Street, also gone but no lorry was involved. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive and to be a pupil at one of the independent girls' day schools was very heaven. The teaching was superb and, post-15, a safe weekend romance with your best friend's mysteriously handsome brother was almost part of the curriculum. But, as long ago as 1976, harsh commercial reality began to disturb the idyll. While the fourth, fifth, and sixth years were swooning over Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel, their governors agreed to merge the financial management of Westbourne, Park, and Laurel Bank. The official justification was ''an arrangement which allows each of the schools to retain its individuality and tradition''. The truth

was the writing was on the wall. Rolls were falling,

co-education was making friends in high places, and the excellent academic standards for which

all three schools were famed demanded resources if they were to be maintained.

Closures and mergers were stalled more by stubbornness than judgment, but only until 1991. To the surprise of many and the horror of a dedicated few, it was Westbourne, the oldest (founded 1877), grandest, and most revered of these blue-stocking conservation zones that cracked first. Wooed by Glasgow Academy (itself suffering from declining rolls and an identity crisis), the governors of Westbourne agreed to a merger. The result was one highly successful co-educational school. At the time the diehards did not anticipate such a happy outcome. Pained voices were raised at the Western Baths and over coffee at The Grosvenor. Pupils were withdrawn from their classes. This was no merger but a hostile takeover by the academy. Westbourne

traditions would be lost. Gels would be distracted from their studies by the proximity of the rugby-playing sex. Make-up would matter more than mathematics. Innocence was doomed.

In fact, Westbourne was wise and, if the negotiations now under-way lead to a merger of Laurel Park with Hutchesons', will look wiser still. Laurel Bank and Park looked down their noses at the Westbourne/Glasgow Academy merger. There was still a place

for single-sex education they declared. They would prove it. Fine words. In 1996 the two were obliged to merge themselves. By that stage Laurel Bank, founded in 1903 to ''offer girls educational opportunities hitherto only available to boys'', had a roll of 370. Park, established in 1880 to

''prepare girls for adulthood'' and, daringly, ''open the door to university'' had just 254 pupils. Parents were shocked by the alliance - but there was a powerful justification, the new Laurel Park would remain single-sex. The blue-stocking tradition would

survive. As Judith Sischy of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools put it: ''These schools 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.''

Park's premises in Lynedoch Street were sold and the new entity was born at Laurel Bank's charming headquarters on Lilybank Terrace. The disposal raised a substantial sum but not, it seems, enough to guarantee the future. Yesterday Mrs Elizabeth Surber, headmistress of Laurel Park and a veteran of Cheltenham Ladies' College, confirmed to The Herald that ''there have been talks with Hutchesons' ''. Mrs Surber explained that ''nothing has been agreed yet'' and that ''if the board of governors had something to say to parents we would say it''. She went on to confirm that Laurel Park has a falling roll, that the abolition of the assisted places scheme has had a serious impact on admissions, and that ''businesses have to think forward and schools have traditionally been bad at that''. Laurel Park will not do anything precipitous. It will inform parents and pupils as soon as it has made a decision

- but the message is clear for those with eyes to see. Glasgow's three west-end girls' schools will soon be none. An era is very close to ending.

Many will rejoice. Independent schools are not politically correct and single-sex ones are caricatured as antediluvian by many

in the education establishment. Cruel jokes have long insisted

that Westbourne, Park, and

Laurel Bank existed only to teach snobbery, deportment, and rich husband-snaring to the daughters of the seriously rich. That is far from true. All three schools had impressive lists of high-achieving former pupils.

If . . . when the final demise of these female-only laagers is declared, Glasgow will have lost rather more than feminine uniforms, panelled walls, and spinster school mistresses who taught Latin's ablative absolute by lying one fifth-former on the floor of

the classroom and pretending

to stab her with an imaginary

spear (''pilum, girls, pilum'').

Yes, Westbourne, Park, and Laurel Bank set standards of tone and class which many find laughable and others regard as the

personification of charm and sophistication. But they did more. Honest educationists often advise parents to ''educate their daughters in girls' schools and their sons

at somebody else's daughter's expense''. In the male-dominated culture of the west of Scotland these schools gave confidence and academic ambition to young women who had few successful female role-models to emulate. They opened horizons and encouraged intellectual risks in

an environment where there were no boys to laugh and tease. Despite the jokes, they produced academics, lawyers, politicians, actresses, civil-servants, journalists, and entrepreneurs, not demure cocktail hostesses. And their passing says something about what is happening to Glasgow.

The existence of three thriving independent schools for girls was an expression of a thriving community. There were a few weekly boarders from such far-flung places as Lanark and Stirling and girls did commute from the south side and from villages such as Balfron and Killearn, but Westbourne, Park, and Laurel Bank were community schools. They were in Glasgow for Glasgow and many of their pupils lived locally in the west end. Changes were made in time of war

and Westbourne evacuated to Symington House near Biggar between 1939 and 1944. Park and Laurel Bank made concessions to Hitler, too. But these were intimate academic communities. They existed to serve an identifiable population. Now that population is moving away - driven out of the city centre by punitive council tax and soaring house prices. Single-sex private education is being eradicated by a combination of government hostility and city centre depopulation.

When the bitter gags about elocution lessons and silver spoons have been forgotten, there may be opportunity for mature reflection. There is not much diversity in Scottish education. The big, merged co-educational private schools which are increasingly popular with parents have better-rewarded teachers and luckier pupils than their comprehensive counterparts, but they have lost some of the sense of community. The west-end schools which

produced Siobhan Redmond (Park), Frances Cairncross (Laurel Bank), Vivien Heilbron (Westbourne), and thousands of others had something more. They had a unique sense of place and camaraderie. Their alumni remain fiercely loyal years after leaving. They value the environment in which they were encouraged to learn and they don't need the growing weight of academic

evidence which demonstrates that, in mixed schools, boys get more attention than girls because they are more disruptive and demand more attention.

In their time Westbourne, Park, and Laurel Bank gave blue-

stockings a good name. They reminded Glaswegians the phrase was originally coined to describe a plucky band of eighteenth-century women who formed a literary society at a time when women were not supposed to do that sort of thing. These were not the Sloane Ranger academies of the English home counties or the Swiss finishing schools so beloved of Tatler and Country Life. They were gutsy establishments, well aware of the chauvinist aspects of Scottish life and determined to provide an effective antidote.

True, they were open only to those who could afford to pay. But all three were products of sentiments akin to the campaign for female suffrage. They set out to change society, not to preserve it in aspic.

As Gay Eggington, head of Laurel Bank until the merger with Park, put it at her school's 90th anniversary dinner in 1993: ''First and foremost, I believe we offer girls the opportunity to fulfil their academic and intellectual potential. This room is filled with women who have broken through the glass ceiling. This was the result of a girls' school education.''

All three west-end schools were enthusiastic participants in the assisted-places scheme. If Laurel Park goes the way of its sisters, the abolition of that scheme will take a large share of the responsibility. The omens are not looking good - as one Westbourne head advised pupils in the 1970s: ''It is very rarely a good idea to get your name in the papers.''