Why single sex girls’ schools are empowering individuals to thrive

If there is one thing we have learned from living in a pandemic, it is that wellbeing really matters. Psychology has always been a highly debated and contentious area. Steeped in ideas from the early philosophers, we can all relate to Descartes “Cogito, ergo sum” and more than this, we know that not only do we exist but we can only thrive if we have purpose and a true sense of belonging in the world. Throughout lockdown, whilst slightly removed at times from the frantic treadmill-like nature of very busy modern life – we have been forced, as a race, to reflect on what really matters. Additionally, some of what really matters has been removed from us – contact with friends, “intimate hugs” and freedom. Considering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, first proposed in 1943 and still regularly referred to as one of psychology’s seminal theories, we have been pushed back down towards the base of the pyramid – our basic needs and safety have been threatened and we can all think back to March 2020 and remember the deep resilience we drew on to get through each day. Time, planning and the new normal have enabled us to move back up Maslow’s pyramid and our psychological needs are coming to the fore. This period of adversity has reminded us that a sense of belonging and of feeling valued with real purpose is more important than anything. We can’t be happy without it and we need to know we are connected to others and that we matter. We could wrap this up in one expression – ‘self-esteem’. It is vital that young people can develop themselves within an environment that supports individuals finding their feet, getting to know who they are and most importantly being happy with who they are.

Being in a school where respect and celebration of individuality are consistently placed as highly as the value of positive interactions is key. When considering a school for one’s child, the most important element is the ethos and culture that underpins the way the community interacts. My advice to any parent would be scrutinise the values by watching how individuals treat each other when you visit the school. From personal experience - I have been fortunate to have experienced varied and wonderful school environments throughout my career – the ethos of mutual support, appreciative collaboration and genuine love of learning has been most evident in the all-girl settings. Perhaps one of the most significant differences I have noticed about single sex girls is the limited need for stringent rules on behaviour. Of course any school has guidance and will set parameters on appearance and courtesy but I have certainly seen that there is less need for what we would term ‘discipline’ – this has such a positive impact on the relationship that exists between pupils and staff. There is even evidence from educational research teams (Sadker et al 2009) borne out by my own experience, that in a co-educational class, boys receive up to eight times as much teacher time as girls.

But the real question should be – is my child making choices based on what they really feel or are they being influenced by others? Sadly, the ‘fear of missing out’ and the ‘fear of not fitting in’ are challenges for all of us and even as adults, Maslow’s theorising applies - we all crave the positive affirmation from those we respect, that we are of value within our communities. So much greater then, is the pressure placed on young people, by each other, to find their place and ‘fit’. How does a single sex school, by its nature only admitting half the relevant population, enable individuals to make their own, genuine choice then? The statistics speak for themselves – girls in all-girl settings are significantly more likely to choose mathematics and science subjects than their counterparts in co-educational settings. Well regarded data, for instance (Forgaz and Leder, 2017) indicates that gender stereotyped decision making amongst girls in co-educational settings compared to single sex girls schools makes it 85% less likely for a 16 year old girl to choose mathematics compared to a girl in an all-girl environment. Interrogating why this is the case uncovers complex unconscious bias and parents should consider for themselves, their own modelling behaviour.

I am not an advocate for girls and boys learning in different ways. It isn’t possible or sensible to pigeon hole genders so specifically – something that is becoming more and more evident in our progressive world. The neuroscientist Gina Rippon is fascinating on this subject in her book the Gendered Brain. Research into how significant the physiological difference in male and female brains has not thrown up huge differences at all. The idea of Neural plasticity is much more relevant – neural pathways changing in time by making new connections – new synapses, is essentially what learning is about. I feel this then lends further weight to the view that each individual should follow their path/develop their passions and talents and gender isn’t relevant. I definitely subscribe to that view and it isn’t just because I studied science as an undergraduate and as a postgraduate, mathematical modelling, it’s because in this single sex environment I am seeing girls do whatever they like with no conditioning impact of girl or boy orientated subjects.

Taking this further into the realms of preparation for the future, role models are undoubtedly one of the most valuable assets for growing young people into global, grounded citizens ready to make a positive impact on the world. Another common feature of all-girl schools is the structure and sheer volume of opportunities to try out leadership. The most sought after positions of responsibility are the ones where they can focus on driving wellbeing and charity initiatives. Opportunities created by vertical ‘House’ structures, where individuals genuinely engage in mentoring younger pupils are hugely successful and rewarding for everyone involved. Having recently finished the interview process to appoint our Heads of Houses with a rigorous application and interview process involving pupils outlining their strategies and plans, it has been truly inspiring and quite frankly a bit humbling to see. What is more impressive is seeing the Heads of Houses in action in their regular House meetings where the whole House is together and they run the activity or discussion themselves. As a teacher, we manage a class around 20 – 24 so it is remarkable to see what the Sixth Form take on, a room filled with pupils of all ages and it works because of the respect the girls have for one another. The older ones care about the younger ones and younger ones look up to older ones – as role models.

The real world is full of diversity. Backgrounds, ages, genders, nationalities, principles… and varied opportunities will exist in any single sex school through the extracurricular programme for instance. All our schools have masses of diversity within them but more critically, each individual needs to feel they belong so they are able to explore who they are, their values, their place, their ambitions, and so they can thrive and develop into someone they will be able to reflect on with justifiable pride. We, as teachers collaborating with each other and parents, are educating the future citizens of an increasingly more connected and yet more diverse world. It is a great responsibility placed on schools to ensure we generate global citizens. Emerging from our school’s you will see confident, well rounded compassionate and resilient women ready to contribute that have loved their time in an all-girls school because it was where they fitted best – at that time. That doesn’t mean you won’t see the same from co-ed schools – it is about what is right for each individual. I will say that we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of providing environments that give genuine unbiased choice – that is what I feel is the greatest strength of girls’ schools.

Sadker, D., Sadker, M., & Zittleman, K. (2009). Still failing at fairness: how gender bias cheats girls and boys in schools and what we can do about it. New York: Scribner.

Forgasz, H. and Leder, G. (2017) https://www.agsa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Alliance-final-report.pdf

Sue Wallace-Woodroffe

Listen to our first parent podcast with Sue, recently launched where she discusses overcoming the myths and misconceptions of singe sex education.