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Single sex school – a style of education worth saving

Single sex school – a style of education worth saving

Following a recent Tes Magazine article entitled: ‘Is single-sex schooling becoming a thing of the past?’, Charlotte Avery explains why an all-girls education is definitely still needed and why we should fight to protect the few girls-only schools that remain.

“I recently read an article that examined the future of single-sex schooling and questioned if all-girls schools are a dying breed. The piece followed the news that Scotland’s last all-girls state school has begun enrolling boys. Scotland now has just six single-sex mainstream private schools, and numbers in England are also declining. Government figures from 2002 showed England had 335 independent all-girls’ schools and 231 girls’ state schools. In 2022 that number fell to 232 and 213 respectively. So, does this downward trend mean single-sex education is outdated and unnecessary? I would argue to the contrary. There are countless benefits to an all-girls education and, until we live in a world where gender inequalities do not exist, we must prepare our girls accordingly.

“The purpose of education is two-fold:

  • To teach academic subject knowledge, skills and understanding of the wider world and to look outward. This is relatively straight-forward with good teachers and appropriate facilities.
  • To teach self-knowledge and self-understanding and help each individual develop self-worth.

“Both of these aspects of education – but particularly the latter – are determined by having the right kind of school culture in place, plus a well-defined ethos and mission alongside superb pastoral skills and dedicated tutors. Many schools, especially those originally founded to educate boys, have – what I would argue is – a distinctly male culture focused on hierarchy and competition. Some girls thrive in this kind of environment and when faced with competition. For others a culture which focuses on equality and cooperation feels more comfortable and nurturing – and that’s what we have created at St Mary’s.

“When young women are growing up and developing a sense of self, it’s important that they are encouraged to explore their interests and feel comfortable in any academic arena, gaining a range of knowledge and skills. Crucially, this needs to be done without a sense of gender expectation or stereotype about whether or not a space is deemed culturally ‘male’ (a Physics laboratory) or ‘female’ (a Textiles studio).

“We also need to build up girls’ confidence with care and thought – giving them the opportunity to practise speaking up and out. Sadly, we still live in a culture where women are largely marginalised. Often their voices and views are ignored or mocked and in some pockets of society everyday sexism is tolerated and remains socially acceptable. You only need to look at the MeToo and Everyone’s Invited movements to understand the scale of the challenges women still face worldwide.

“Girls’ schools are uniquely placed to equip young women with the knowledge, tenacity and persistence needed to navigate the obstructions, obstacles and opposition they may, regrettably, still face in the adult world.  Within a supportive, open and non-judgemental environment, they can discover – unhindered – where their passions and ambitions lie and explore their capabilities.

“When this happens, the results speak for themselves. Single-sex education has been proven to challenge negative perceptions of Maths and Science by young women, boosting not only uptake but also performance. At St Mary’s all subjects are ‘for girls’ and students are encouraged to pursue their interests with no academic path off limits. From the minute our girls walk through the door, we work hard to instil them with a passion for subjects such as Maths and Science; subjects that women have historically been less keen to pursue, particularly in co-ed settings.

“At St Mary’s 43.6% of our students take up Mathematics at A Level, compared to 8.1% nationally. In parallel, 35.9% take up Biology A Level in comparison to 9.9% nationally. Both Science and Maths have always attracted high uptake at A level at St Mary’s and many of our girls go on to read these subjects and associated applied fields at university. In years to come, we hope this aspect of our work will result in more women working in science-based careers – but we don’t take that as a given, so our work continues.

“As well as championing the full spectrum of academic subjects to girls, single-sex schools can also help young women find their voice. While exam results obviously open doors for our girls, it is their self-belief, persistence and drive that props the door open and enables them, and others, to walk through. At single-sex schools like St Mary’s students have a chance to develop a strong sense of who they are. Learning in an environment where discussion is as important as debate and listening is as important as talking and speaking, they can gain the self-belief and the soft skills needed to succeed at university, in apprenticeships and in employment. Alongside academic excellence, this is vital if we want to encourage girls to take more of a lead in society.

“It's well known that when girls and women take on leadership roles in business, in politics, in communities, and in households, the results are transformative. According to the charity, Women Deliver*:

  • When women are meaningfully represented and engaged in leadership bodies, such as legislatures, courts, executive bodies, and community councils – laws, rulings, and decisions are more likely to be inclusive, representative and take diverse views into account
  • Women’s leadership in households improves access to education and healthcare for their families
  • Countries with a greater proportion of women as top decision-makers in legislatures have lower levels of income equality
  • Peace agreements are 35% more likely to last at least 15 years if women leaders are engaged in their creation and execution
  • When women hold more executive leadership positions, their companies are more profitable; companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams are 21% more likely to outperform the national average.

“Who wouldn’t want that for future generations of all genders? While some would argue that all-girls schools do not reflect the real world, and don’t prepare students for life after education, I’d argue the opposite. Until we live in a world free from gender stereotypes and gender inequality, single-sex schools remain an essential part of the UK school system. As educators we have an obligation to prepare the next generation of women with the skills, confidence, and integrity they need to rise to the top, achieve their full potential and help shape a better world. All-girls schools have an enormous role to play in that.”