As a Headmistress of a Girls’ School, you truly hope that the future of the girls you are educating will be secure. A future where girls are recognised as equals, they are given the same opportunities as boys and are able to choose and succeed in a career unaffected by their gender.
This weekend, reading the Sunday papers I became more reassured. There is a growing band of campaigners in Britain and the US who are trying to get girls to look beyond the mirror. They are trying to boost girls’ self-esteem, by calling for less gendered advertising, better role models and equal treatment of the sexes in schools. Last month, one of the UK’s best-selling magazines for girls, ‘Girl Talk’, declared itself feminist with its campaign #GirlsAreAmazing. The editor, Bea Appleby said, “we are promoting feminist values – equality, sisterhood, empowerment and making the magazine a safe place that girls can be proud of who they are and meet great models. I did not think it was right that all our readers would see were pop starts and models. We are encouraging them to think about what’s equal and what’s not.”
Hannah Webster, speaking for the Independent Association of Prep Schools, warned of the dangers of the increasing marketing pressures on girls wearing pink and boys blue. “If we designate a particular colour to a gender, it leads us to designate all manner of other things by gender too. The result is girls are ultimately valued differently by society.” Children’s laureate Malorie Blackman and author Philip Pullman want publishers to “stop labelling books, in the title or on packaging as for girls or for boys” as it can lead “to false and stupid assumptions about what each gender wants, narrowing the horizons and possibilities for children.”
The advantage of an all girls’ education is that you can avoid these stereotypes. Girls, here, do not see any pressure to conform to a societal norm. At our recent Open Morning, our Head Girl reinforced this message, “It has been great growing up in an all girls’ school without any pressure to conform to stereotypes or having to worry about my appearance. It’s interesting to see that many girls who’ve joined the Sixth Form this year from mixed schools have made a real effort to focus on their appearance, and those of us who’ve been here ages have been thinking ‘what’s the issue?’ There’s no need. And it’s good to see that by this point in the year they’ve given up on this and realised that actually that’s not important here and that so long as they’re smart, they can come in looking however they feel comfortable and will still be taken seriously.”
We continue to challenge stereotypes at our schools but it is difficult when there is a mass of pink-tinged advertising, cartoons, toys and clothing that are stereotyping girls. I am therefore delighted when there is a growing swell of opinion from girls themselves that this has to change.
Friday 11th October is International Day of the Girl: a day when groups from all over the world take action to highlight, discuss and ultimately change situations and actions that devalue, neglect and oppress girls. Established and led by girls themselves, these proactive collectives join together to discuss, highlight and advance girls’ lives and opportunities across the globe, helping everyone to adopt new ways of thinking about gender issues.
I feel strongly that part of our role as teachers is to educate our girls to want to make a difference to the world in which they live, educating them to make the world a better place. I was therefore delighted when the Girls’ Leadership Group embraced this idea and decided to make International Day of the Girl a landmark in their own forceful drive for change. On this day, they will be undertaking a series of challenges and initiatives both to mark the day and to support a charity they feel particularly passionate about: Educating Girls Globally.
Entirely under their own steam, the GLG has become one of 35 girls’ schools in the world to embrace the charity. They have built connections with girls’ leadership groups across the globe, forming links with schools in Japan, New Zealand and Australia. Together, this global group aims to raise money to support girls’ schools in developing countries and raise awareness of the importance of girls’ education in combatting global poverty. The girls are rightly proud of the connections they have made and together the schools are supporting a fund raising project for a school in Malawi where the girls want the funds they raise to help build classrooms, toilets and a security wall to make girls feel safe in their school.
One of the many challenges facing girls in developing countries is the distance they have to walk to get to school. For many it is a distance of 10km. As a school we are also getting behind the Plan UK and GSA Because I am a Girl campaign of walking 10kms on International Day of the Girl and we are encouraging all our girls in the Senior School to be part of a team of 10 to walk 1km in their lunchtime and donate money to Educating Girls Globally. The Girls Leadership Group are taking the challenge further and walking the full 10kms!
We are also showing on International Day of the Girl the film Girl Rising which highlights the importance of girls’ education and the difference education made to the lives of six girls. The film tells the girls’ stories. It is powerful.
As our Head Girl, Harriet Clough said to the school last week “Being able to just give a little of what we have at Bedford Girls’ School to the school in Malawi will make such an incredible difference to the lives and education of the girls that attend the school”. Girls at BGS are making a difference and I am very proud of their efforts to do so.
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.