This weekend I was asked to speak at the Future Schools Fair in Aylesbury. It is an annual event where representatives from independent and state schools across the shires have an opportunity to promote their school to prospective parents. The event also offers seminars where invited speakers offer guidance and advice to parents on what type of school to choose for their child.
I was delighted to be invited to talk to parents about the benefits an all girls’ school provides for their daughter, dispelling the myths and misconceptions some people still have of single sex schools.
To my mind the real argument in favour of single sex schools are the intangible benefits they offer in enabling children to grow up at their own pace and to learn about themselves as people every bit as much as they do about their school work. Single sex schools create a strong space where girls and boys can learn to feel comfortable with who they are, free of the pressure to conform to stereotypical notions of how girls and boys should or should not be, look or act. Being apart from each other during the school day seems to give boys and girls greater self-esteem – which is of course at the root of successful relationships with others of both genders.
All girls’ schools also provide an aspirational environment for girls that cannot exist in a co-educational school. In the course of their day to day schooling, girls see women in positions of seniority and purpose – among the staff and the wider community – who are effective and appropriate role models and who do not see gender as a barrier to achievement. Furthermore, in a girls’ school like ours the high achievers and leaders among the student body are always girls. The pupil with the highest mark in Physics is a girl, the captain of the hockey team is a girl and the head prefect of the school is a girl. Combined, these innumerable examples of how gender need never be a bar to success and happiness help girls to live their own lives free from the parameters of gender stereotyping – becoming themselves ground-breaking, inspiring and confident women, who challenge stereotyping and affect positive change at every turn.
There is no shortage of scientific evidence that the brains of boys and girls develop differently and that boys and girls tend to have different preferred learning styles. Dr Leonard Sax, no stranger to controversy, in the Times magazine in 2005, highlighted his belief that mixed gender schooling can be depriving the world of outstanding female scientists and engineers. In the TES this August he argued that 90% of teachers are much better at teaching one gender or another – he said that ignoring gender as we have in the last few decades with the growth of co-educational schools has not brought us to “an enlightened paradise where boys write about their feelings and study French Literature, while girls work on their mechanical skills, on the contrary it has exaggerated the gender stereotype where we now find girls who are focused on how they look, obviously to please the boys in a way that was not the case 30 years ago.”
I hear continuously that girls schools are not representative of society, girls do not know how to mix with boys when they have been in an all girls’ school, girls need to learn how to cope with boys and they don’t learn how to in an all girls’ school. I have always challenged those that suggest single sex education restricts girls’ opportunities because they don’t interact with boys. I would argue that it is the lack of boys in the classroom that enables girls to open their minds and doors to paths less travelled. For those looking to increase opportunities for women, I would argue that the role and value of single sex education cannot be ignored and I will continue to invite visitors to Bedford Girls’ School so they can see what this truly means in action.