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The strengths of girls' schools: "Women hold up half the sky"

Posted on: 6th March 2014 | Category: Principal's Blog

After almost 30 years as head in four different all-girls’ schools I continue to be fascinated by the continuing debate about co-educational or single sex schools. The benefits of girls-only schools are self-evident. Academic results are better: confidence is greater: girls are able to focus without distraction in class and develop their own learning styles, taught by teachers who are experts in girls’ education. But the most telling argument is that of opportunity. In a single sex school, the needs and aspirations of girls are the main focus. All the top mathematicians and physicists, all those in drama performances or orchestras, running the charities programmes, developing Young Enterprise companies, are girls. They do not have to compete with boys for attention, either in class or beyond it. The leader of everything is a girl. This culture helps to develop the confidence that young women need before they enter a career world still dominated by men. As Madeleine Albright wrote: ’It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent’.

The time for co-education is at university level, when girls are ready to enter a new world on equal terms: when their brothers and male classmates have also grown to maturity, later than girls, and are also ready to compete on equal terms. The exhaustive report, Failing at Fairness, reflecting 20 years of research by the American Association of University Women, and now updated as Still Failing at Fairness, sadly continues to demonstrate the ways in which girls can lose out in coeducational classrooms dominated by the more vocal male voices. There are attitude differences too, deeply ingrained, between boys and girls, which contribute to the picture. Girls attribute success to effort, and failure to lack of ability: boys attribute success to ability, failure to lack of effort. In girls’ schools, girls have traditionally been encouraged to think of themselves as good at maths and sciences, and will pursue these subjects at University and beyond: against the trends.

The private girls’ schools sector contributes significantly to the rich diversity of educational provision in many countries world-wide. After twenty five years leading girls’ schools in the UK, I have moved to Switzerland to run a small International school for girls. Students at Surval come from all over the world, and for many of them it is the first time they have experienced girls-only schooling. Travelling regularly across the globe, I find many areas where there is a real thirst for the qualities that a girls’ school can bring. In some countries there is a religious or cultural drive for this: in others it is a passionate belief that in a girls- only school, students have not just equal opportunity but every opportunity to lead, to be team players, to learn to fail in a supportive environment, and to succeed with the same support. Thus in India, in the UAE, and in the United States, in the UK, girls’ schools may be small in number but disproportionately significant in what they stand for and what they achieve. The National Coalition of Girls’ Schools in the United States is a leader in research and support of and for single sex education for girls. Joined this year by The Young Women’s Leadership Network, their recent conference produced outstanding speakers and a host of strategies for developing girls as leaders rather than just implementers of others’ ideas. Alice Phillips, President of the Girls’ Schools Association (www.gsa.uk.com, representing the independent girls’ schools in the UK), is a passionate advocate of all- girls schools, pointing out not only their outstanding academic achievement but also the emphasis on developing resilience and character, preparing girls to be leaders in the future. Girls' schools take seriously the fact that women remain under-represented in public life, and they tutor and mentor their students in self-confidence, resilience and risk-taking.

One of the most recent countries to establish an all-girls school is Bhutan: ‘where girls are the players, not the audience’.  An inspiring strapline for an inspiring school. (www.utpal.bt)  At Surval we are very much looking forward to working with Principal Dawa Chowden and her students in the future, sharing the dreams and the vision for girls’ schools. As the NCGS has it, girls’ schools are where girls take centre stage: and as they famously claimed earlier, ‘girls’ schools are dynamite, not dinosaurs’. The Uptal Academy sets an inspiring example of newly established girls’ schools, to meet the needs and dreams of a new generation in this millennium. There is a real need too for a diversity of size in educational establishments: huge schools with thousands of students, and thirty or more in a single class, can provide a particular type of education which depends more upon rote learning. But there will always be a need for small schools. Many girls flourish in their invigorating atmosphere- girls who would be silent in a larger establishment where the struggle to assert their individuality would be harder. Small schools offer real challenge of all kinds: but equally their size enables girls to develop confidence and competence, and a belief in themselves and their ability to achieve. 

Thousands of girls’ schools world-wide have served generations of young women, and many of these women are well established on the career ladder, with higher and more realistic expectations than ever before. Their daughters deserve the same opportunity. And in countries where women continue to be under-represented at the highest levels, we hope that our generation of girls will have the courage, the self-belief and the vision to strive for and make the most of that opportunity.  


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