Principal's Blog

The power of an all-girls education: engaging, enriching and empowering young women

29 July 2022

As I reflect on Surval’s uniqueness, I look back on an earlier reflection piece written earlier this year. On that day, the International Day of the Girl Child, it seemed a fitting day to reflect on the privilege of leading a girls’ school and what I see as the benefits of an all-girls education.  Whilst myself a product of all-girls education, my professional career has, until recently, always been in co-educational schools, both in the UK and Asia. So it is with the insights of educating girls in mixed environments in different cultural contexts, that I am inspired to be leading Surval Montreux, an all-girls international boarding school today, with the opportunity to have a focused impact on the mindset of girls.

In 2011, the United Nations General Assembly declared 11th October as the International Day of the Girl Child, to recognize girls’ rights and the challenges girls face around the world and to promote girls’ empowerment. At Surval Montreux, our student-led charity initiatives focus regularly on the plight of girls who enjoy significantly less freedom and educational opportunities than themselves. It is perhaps inevitable in an all-girls environment that we look to surround the girls with examples of female role models and influencers, and of issues impacting girls around the world, thereby encouraging them to go on to advocate for the rights of girls globally and empowering them to find ways to make a difference in the immediate and longer-term.   

It is easy to state our commitment to helping our students develop as balanced, confident, resilient, compassionate individuals, equipped with the tools and skills to face the challenges they may confront in tomorrow’s world. But how do we maximise the advantages of the context of an all-girls environment to achieve this? In an all-girls environment, I feel there are subtleties in how students are engaged, enriched and empowered which help set up our students to stand out in the long run. 


Engagement must start with a feeling of belonging. Girls are generally quick to establish friendships, and, whilst helping girls navigate their friendships can be an emotional journey for all involved, there is no doubt that girls naturally feel a sense of connectedness with their all-female peers.  The all-girls environment provides a supportive environment where girls can navigate what is often a rocky period of complex emotions and character development during the teenage years and can grow in self-awareness, free of some of the social pressures which may come with being in a mixed environment.  

In an all-girls environment, teachers can make subtle, even subconscious, adjustments to their teaching approach to engage their students.  Girls enjoy collaborating, are generally sensitive to others’ needs and are reflective, often to the point of being overly critical of themselves and their performance.  Girls can be compliant learners and reluctant to challenge others, and in setting up debate activities where girls are supported to defend and challenge opinions, they build confidence in voicing their thoughts.  Girls may need more time to reflect and weigh up their answer, before jumping in with a response, or may need more encouragement to take a risk.  With an awareness of this, teachers subtly adjust their teaching to optimise the girls’ learning.  This is not suggesting that there are gender-specific ways of teaching, but there are certainly ways in which our approaches are adjusted to bring out the best in the girls


In an all-girls environment, all opportunities are there for the taking by girls, with no potentially misguided questions asked about whether it is more suited to males or females, be it about subject options, their choice of enrichment activities or positions of responsibility. Girls are free to follow their interests unconstrained by any perceived limits on expectations. Surrounded by an unquestioning openness to opportunities and exposed to a comprehensive programme of activities, sports, trips and clubs, girls are more likely to give things a go and thereby develop wide-ranging interests.  


The debate around gender equality in the workplace is not my focus here, but if we are to move beyond this debate, we need to ensure that women feel empowered to step forward and not see barriers to opportunities they can take. I see how this empowerment and confidence can come, possibly conversely, from an all-girls education.  

We seek to empower girls by instiling in them the confidence to speak up and step up to opportunities, to take the lead.  This starts in the classroom, where, in our highly personalised learning environment with an average class size of 10 or under, we focus on girls taking ownership of their learning rather than relying heavily on the teacher to be the font of all knowledge. They are encouraged to think critically and flexibly and to problem solve, skills which they will need in the fast-changing workplace.   

In a mixed environment, I have observed how some (not all) boys will naturally put themselves forward more readily than many of their female peers, which naturally starts to instil an imbalance of perception about the differing capacity of females and males to step up to lead. In an all-girls environment, girls will more readily take the lead since they do not need to compete to take on these roles, and so a readiness to step up becomes ingrained.

At the risk of over-generalising, female strengths are typically recognised as including emotional intelligence, reflection and collaboration, and there is undoubtedly a place for these strengths in leadership. Life in a girls’ boarding school certainly promotes development in each of these strengths, as the girls learn to live and study alongside each other. In research conducted by Zender Folkman in 2019 published in the Harvard Business Review, women rate themselves as less confident than men until their mid-40s and hence tend to be more hesitant in putting themselves forward for promotion until later in their careers. I like to think that the empowerment of an all-girls education will encourage graduates of girls` schools to put themselves forward more confidently from an earlier stage in their careers.

In summary, our role is to educate and empower young women to be proud of who they are and to see themselves the equal to anyone. How many times have females not been in the running for a position or opportunity because they didn’t put themselves forward for it through fear of not being up to the competition?  I hope that the mindset instilled through a girls-only education helps overcome this risk so that females are at least in the running to be considered alongside their counterparts. Whilst we seek to raise the students` awareness of their natural advantages during their time at school and endeavour to help them articulate what they are gaining from their school experiences, the impact of their all-girls international education here at Surval Montreux is unlikely to become fully evident until later in life as and when they find themselves living and working in multicultural environments, leading and managing teams and companies, embarking on their creative business venture,  working for an NGO, or sitting in a boardroom.