Why send your daughter to single sex school?
Helen Fraser, Chief Executive of the Girls Day School Trust, tells us why she feels keeping the genders separated is still relevant in education.
“When I’m asked about the benefits of single-sex education, I think back to how I personally benefited from going to all-girls schools while growing up, and how my two daughters and two step daughters flourished in that environment too.
Interestingly, the evidence increasingly confirms that girls really do achieve more in this setting. In single-sex schools, girls are less likely to conform to gender stereotypes, are less constrained in their choice of subjects, show a greater propensity to take risks and innovate, perform better in examinations, have more opportunities to show leadership and, eventually, are more successful in the job market.
These effects do not, of course, follow inevitably from the separation of the sexes in education. Single-sex education, to be successful, must be more than just an organisational device – the principles and practices of a school must be set up to ensure that girls can be nurtured, challenged and empowered.
Excellent schools design their structures, lessons, activities and teaching styles to suit the range of needs of their pupils; and one of the ways in which they do this is organising pupils into sensible groupings according to learning styles and preferences. Differentiation in the classroom can then focus much more sharply and effectively on individuals as individuals.
This kind of organisation is done in all schools to a certain extent - the most obvious way of sorting pupils out is by age; another is by ability. But an equally fundamental way of sorting pupils into sensible learning groups is by gender.
Girls, for a variety of reasons, learn differently from boys.
This is because they tend to have a number of attributes and dispositions that, crucially, have their greatest impact in childhood and adolescence, and which mean that girls’ learning needs, styles and preferences are different from those of boys.
Typically girls prefer cooperative, discussion-led learning environments, they adapt better to coursework tasks and collaborative, project-based activities, they respond to different forms of curriculum content and are more likely to disengage from co-ed sports activities. In coeducational classrooms, boys tend to monopolise discussion, and take more domineering roles in group work and in practical exercises. This, in turn, means that teachers inadvertently adopt styles and use content that seek to maximise boys’ engagement and optimise their behaviour. It is only in girls-only environments that girls’ needs and preferences come to the fore.
Girls also face external pressures to conform to gender stereotypes, which are stronger in the presence of boys. These pressures can be checked and challenged in an all-girls school where they have a protected space in which to develop their full potential, and to make informed but unconstrained choices about interests, subjects and careers.
For example, studies have shown that women who went to girls’ schools are more likely to study stereotypically male subjects like maths, physics and chemistry, both at school and at university. We know this to be true from our own experience, with girls at the 26 Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) schools and academies over twice as likely to study A Level physics or chemistry than girls nationally, and overall nearly half the students in GDST Sixth Forms taking at least one science A Level.
GDST schools are able to offer an ideal learning environment dedicated to girls’ learning needs, styles and preferences, and free of gender-stereotyping and distraction. This is reflected in the design of the schools themselves, the timetable (including the length of lessons and structure of the school day), the curriculum and co-curriculum offer, teaching and learning approaches, and indeed in their whole-school culture.
There is a common misconception that teaching girls separately is intended to protect them, to provide an educational bubble-wrap. In fact, I believe that GDST schools serve to subvert, rather than support, gender stereotypes and assumptions. We seek to give girls space to develop a strong sense of themselves and their value, and to give them the confidence to make their own choices, free of any sense that the script has been written for them.
Sometimes parents can worry that girls won’t know how to interact with boys if they go to an all-girls school. Day schools offer a good balance, offering a girls-only space which can fit in to the rest of their lives - and of course our girls socialise with boys in their spare time and have opportunity to do so as well through joint activities with local boys schools, such as drama productions.
As a mother of two girls, I know that they tend to be hard-wired to please. Girls can feel the weight of self-expectation, and they can put themselves under immense pressure. Their social skills are advanced when they are small, but that makes them daunted if they get things wrong. The right school can build their confidence and the Girls’ Day School Trust does this by focusing on increasing girls’ resilience, and encouraging them to take risks.
In March, for example, Wimbledon High School held a ‘Blow Your Own Trumpet’ week, challenging the assumption that it’s bad for girls to shout about their successes. Last term Putney High School trialled lessons in improvised comedy as a novel way of building Sixth Formers’ confidence and encouraging them to think on their feet. Next year, Oxford High School will be introducing a programme to address girls’ tendency towards perfectionism, which can be damaging to their learning if taken to extremes.
Girls need time, security, and clear but supportive boundaries as they grow up. They need to have their learning needs, styles and preferences taken into consideration and space away from societal pressures to help them find their own sense of self worth and to develop confidence. There is no better setting for this than an all-girls school.”
- Helen Fraser