Girl Power

Jane Gandee, Headmistress at St Swithun’s School in Winchester, tells how her girls grow up to really be themselves.

There are many excellent independent schools, some of which are single-sex. The question for the discerning parent is whether the co-ed or single-sex nature of the school should be a key part of the decision-making progress when choosing a school.

In my view, there is a lot of rubbish spoken and written about boys and girls, reflecting an apparently insatiable desire to emphasise the differences between them. Too many people, in trying to make sense of the world, come up with unhelpful stereotypes. I consider myself a human being first and a woman second and therefore think that it is more helpful to focus on what we all have in common rather than creating some sort of binary opposition.

Having said that I am not in favour of seeking or emphasising differences between girls and boys, it might seem paradoxical to support single-sex education, but my experience suggests that single-sex schools often provide an environment in which stereotypes can be overcome. This should not be taken as suggesting the same does not, or cannot, happen in co-ed schools; it is simply that my recent experience is in girls’ schools.

Where both boys and girls are present, one can easily fall into the trap of defining one gender in terms of the other. One might hear (to a boy) ‘why don’t you sit down quietly like the girls?’ or to a girl ‘why don’t you throw more like a boy?’ Equally, I have heard many parents, on the basis of their experience of one son and one daughter, make sweeping generalisations such as that boys need more exercise than girls. That is certainly true for some boys, but obviously untrue for others.

In a girls’ school you would be unlikely to hear this sort of comment because there are no boys with which to contrast the girls.  The girls in girls’ schools play a full range of roles: class clown, the ‘just in time’ pupil, reluctant to answer questions, always asking questions, the one with the neat handwriting, the one with the untidy handwriting or the one with the unruly hair. They also study a full range of subjects, their choice driven by their interests and abilities rather than by what is apparently expected, still, of women.

It is still the case that there are some co-ed schools in which not a single girl studies physics. Research also shows that girls’ schools have higher percentages of girls studying subjects stereotypically considered as ‘male’ such as chemistry or maths than in in co-ed environments. Why might this be? Perhaps in an environment where there is a binary boy/girl contrast it is more difficult for some girls to admit to enjoying something that the media still defines as ‘male’.

In March 2016, ATL general secretary, Mary Bousted, said that the pressure on girls to be quiet, attractive and listen to the boys doing the talking is ‘as great now as it ever has been’ as sexist bullying persists in co-ed schools. She went on to say ‘it’s very hard for a girl to be brainy and feminine’.

In addition to feeling comfortable about studying the full range of subjects, research has shown that girls educated in single-sex schools are more likely to be risk takers in educational and professional terms, for example making more ambitious job applications.

How do we create risk-takers? Well, in a girls’ school there is nowhere to hide. Whatever the activity, a girl will have to lead. Whether speaking in public, abseiling or leading a team, girls will either do it themselves, if they feel ready, or see other girls taking the lead. They have no sense that there is anything that girls cannot do.

Last year, St Swithun’s often fielded over 25 sports teams on a Saturday morning featuring over half of the school’s pupils. That is unusual in the context of the real world when reported rates of involvement in sport for teenage girls are much lower.

Girls play sport in girls’ schools because that is considered normal. Girls’ sport is of prime importance unlike the ‘real’ world where women’s sport receives very little publicity. The absolute normality of playing sport, getting red-faced, hot and sweaty encourages girls to continue exercising. Research suggests that those girls who play sport have a healthier body image and those girls who have a healthy body image enjoy a more positive relationship with food. At St Swithun’s we are famous for our match teas. The extent to which this attitude to sport and eating differs from many other contexts was emphasised by our school chaplain who joined us recently from a co-ed state school. He tells me that in his previous school there were two things that the girls wouldn’t do in front of boys: play sport or eat because they didn’t want to be perceived as unfeminine.

I have read articles in which the writer points out that girls are not delicate creatures who need to be protected from the realities of life. I agree with that, but I still contend that in a world in which there is significant pressure on girls and women to conform to certain stereotypes, it can be easier to grow up to be yourself and to develop your own personality in an environment in which girls play every role. Girls’ schools provide just such an environment.