02 Sep 2020

The Power of An All-Girls' Education

Alex Hems, Head of St George's School for GirlsI vividly remember, in the Christmas holidays of my final year at my all-through girls’ school, not unlike St George’s, going to a series of lectures and seminars in London designed for English A Level students. I had finished my Oxford entrance exams and had done quite a bit of work on George Eliot, inspired by my English teacher, who had encouraged me to try for Oxford. A boy in one of the seminar groups started saying something about Middlemarch, with gusto and confidence, but I knew he was completely wrong. I had never come across that sort of outspoken confidence before in anyone I had been taught by at school, but I had been taught to study, and to articulate my point of view, and I remember piling in as soon as I could, to correct him, no doubt rather self-righteously, but certainly not with any hesitation. I was definitely a shy teenager, and I do believe that if I had faced that level of self-confident assertion in every lesson I attended at school, I might quite quickly have been cowed by it, or at least been reluctant to engage with it. Encountering it, as I did, fairly late in my school career, when I was feeling absolutely on top of my subject, I was well equipped to respond. At school, through my love of English I had found my own voice.

Upper School girls in the libraryOver the course of my career I have become a passionate advocate of single sex education for girls, although I also recognise that it may not be the answer for every girl. I would always advise families looking at schools to think about finding the best fit for their child rather than starting with assumptions about any particular kind of school. Having said that, I believe that there are some things that girls’ schools do remarkably well for their students. In this country there is an urgent need for more equal representation of woman at Board level in almost every field of employment. There is some evidence from studies in America that seems to suggest that from the age of six girls start to regard themselves as less innately talented than boys. This is of course disheartening news, particularly as it appears to support the view that girls and women will tend to avoid professions which are perceived to demand genius or a high level of intellectual brilliance. One of the joys of a girls' school is the relative freedom from gender-related stereotypes. I am not a fan of quotas as a way of achieving equality, although I recognise the arguments in their favour. Young women need strong female role models of leadership and girls’ schools are an excellent way to achieve this. At St George’s, as at all girls’ schools, all the leadership positions in the student community are held by girls, from our Junior School upwards; they speak on our Student Council; serve as House Captains, Prefects, Form Prefects; they direct plays, take the lead in debating, our Combined Cadet Force, the Model United Nations group, our Amnesty group, Eco Committee and edit their own award-winning magazine, Independent Women. We cannot cocoon our girls from all external cultural influences, of course, but we can ensure that they grow up in an environment where their voices are heard, in all their diversity. Not only can the girls themselves take on these key positions in school life, but in a girls’ school we can ensure that the role models whom we introduce from the wider world will all send strong, positive messages to our young women. At St George’s our girls have had the opportunity to spend time in discussion with leading scientists, lawyers, doctors, mountaineers and authors, who are women at the top of their fields. In addition to this, we are all aware of the increasing sexualisation of childhood. I believe that girls’ schools allow girls to stay young for that little bit longer, to be uninhibited in their enjoyment of childhood.

Two pupils perform a science experimentThe phenomenon known as ‘gender intensification’ means that in a mixed environment gender stereotypes are more likely to be reinforced by the young people themselves. A single-sex learning environment can help both boys and girls to shake free of the stereotypes surrounding subject preferences and approach to learning. There is evidence to suggest that while girls in a girls-only setting will become more assertive and willing to articulate their views, boys in a boys-only group in turn develop more of the collaborative learning style that characterises girls’ approach. It is a natural part of growing up for young people to try to establish where they fit into their peer group, and to begin to articulate their own identity. I believe that girls’ schools enable girls to grow as individuals in their own right, not as they perceive themselves in relation to boys. Time and time again, when I speak to my students about what being at St George’s has meant for them, they tell me that this is a place where they have felt able to be themselves. This, I believe, is how we can give our daughters the sense of self-worth from which grows the confidence to take up the space to which they are entitled in the world, confidence that is not shrill or superficial, but calm and self-possessed.

All good schools will offer a wide range of opportunities to their students; in a girls’ school no-one ever need fear that she will be the only girl in her physics class, or who wants to join the CCF or pursue a career in engineering, astrophysics or computer game design for example. It is often said that girls and boys learn in different ways; that is a very broad generalisation, and there is also a great deal of variation within the sexes. We know, however, that boys and girls develop at different rates, and a single-sex environment enables teachers to focus on the needs and developmental stage of girls or boys as appropriate, rather than being stretched across both.

A pupil talks with the careers adviser about which university to attendGirls’ schools labour under a negative stereotype of being academic hothouses, where girls are encouraged to pursue the top grades at the expense of all else. It is certainly the case that girls in single sex schools are very successful academically; of course it is also true that may single sex schools are selective. Even when this is taken into account, however, it does appear that learning in a girls-only setting is beneficial to girls’ attainment, an effect that is replicated in education systems in a number of other countries aside from the UK. There is of course a great deal more to education than grades, and many detractors claim that girls who have not been educated alongside boys are less able to cope sensibly with a mixed environment at university and in the workplace. There is evidence to suggest that in fact women who experienced a single-sex education are more assertive and confident in their adult relationships, but I imagine that this is a debate that will continue to stir up strong feeling on both sides. There are of course excellent co-ed schools, just as there are some poor examples of single sex schools. Being a girls’ or a boys’ school is not in itself a mark of excellence, but it is my belief in the power of opportunity that a really fine girls’ school offers to the women of tomorrow that makes me such an advocate.

The article is written by Mrs Alex Hems, Head of St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh