The empowering effect of girls-only educationPosted on 26th Nov 2015 in Which School?, Single-sex education
Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), on the potential for ‘extraordinary results’
Girls’ schools were the obvious choice for my two stepdaughters and two daughters. Their experiences, between the ages of five and 18, shaped their characters and helped them become the adventurous, resilient women they are today. My own secondary schooling, at a girls’ grammar in Leicester, was also overwhelmingly positive. After a miserable time at a co-ed primary school, with annoying boys around every corner, I suddenly had likeminded girls to talk to and play with – it was bliss by comparison.
It was only when I became chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) – a network of 24 schools and two academies educating 20,000 girls – that I really asked myself the question, “Why single-sex?” I knew that it had worked for me and my family but I hadn’t given any real thought to the benefit others could gain from the experience. In terms of bringing out the best in individuals, whatever their aptitudes, in my view, a single sex environment really is second to none.
Extensive research backs up an argument I’m only too aware of personally, namely that girls, for a variety of reasons, learn differently to boys. From an increasingly early age, they face pressures to conform to gender stereotypes, pressures which are undoubtedly stronger in the presence of boys. In co-ed classrooms, boys tend to monopolise discussions and take more domineering roles in group work and practical exercises. It’s no surprise that teachers seek to maximise boys’ engagement and regulate their behaviour. In girls’ only environments, girls’ needs and preferences come to the fore.
People sometimes think that single-sex girls’ schools are about ‘protecting’ girls from the big bad world, but in our experience at GDST this couldn’t be further from the truth. Far from wrapping girls in cotton wool and reinforcing gender stereotypes, our schools seek to subvert them by offering an education dedicated to the development and empowerment of successful, confident and adventurous girls.
In order to achieve their full potential, girls need space in which to make informed, unconstrained choices about interests, subjects and careers. In settings with boys, girls can come under pressure to choose what are seen as ‘girl-appropriate’ subjects or school activities, which necessarily narrows their choices both academically and in extra-curricular terms. Girls are also less likely in a mixed-sex group to step up to leadership roles preferring to step aside for the boys. By contrast, girls at GDST schools are empowered to reject gender stereotyping in sports, subject and career choices. They show a much greater propensity to choose what are otherwise seen as ‘masculine’ subjects – like maths and physics – and maintain this interest in their careers.
With so much focus on science and technology in terms of future economic growth, it’s heartening to know that in 2014, 61% of our A Level students took one or more science or maths subjects and 20% studied one or more languages. Single sex schools aren’t a silver bullet to address these issues, but underpinned by a set of principles where girls can be nurtured, challenged and empowered, they can achieve extraordinary results.