Can single-sex schools prepare children for adult life?

Until the late 1800’s, girls were educated in the drawing room, providing a social education rather than an occasion to develop intellectually, and at the start of the twentieth century it is worth reminding ourselves that less than 25% of 12-18 girls attended any type of school. Pioneering women such as Mary Buss, Emily Shirreff and Maria Grey were instrumental in paving the way for girls to be educated.

Today the girls-only sector still has a strong presence, both in the independent as well as the maintained sector, and the fact that there are still a number of highly successful single-sex schools is testament to the fact that this model really does work. In the words of Dr Kevin Stannard “the girls-only school sector stubbornly refuses to die”. As a leader of a girls’ school, one of 25 schools in the Girls’ Day School Trust, the UK’s leading network of girls’ schools, I am clear as to why this route works and why it is still as strong as ever.

The debate around co-ed or single-sex is certainly not new and, given that men and women coexist throughout daily life, it is understandable that many might question how single-sex education can offer the best preparation for adult life. Yet, there is plenty of research to demonstrate that girls do better academically, as well as socially and emotionally, in a single-sex environment and that it is possible that the benefits of a co-educational school might be greater for boys than girls. One Head of a boys’ school turning fully co-educational recently stated that “boys need exposure to girls in order to receive a rounded education”. In many cases the decision to go co-educational is based on economic reasons rather than a genuine and authentic belief in the co-ed experience. Nevertheless, there are arguments to support both single-sex and co-education, which is reassuring for parents when choosing a school. What is curious, however, is why some boys’ schools choose to go co-educational and how rare it is that girls’ schools change tack and start taking on boys. Whilst the tide might be retreating for boys’ schools, it certainly is not the case for girls’ schools.

I am a firm advocate of single-sex education, based on my experiences as a teacher, as well as a parent. Why? Quite simply because I believe and recognise that girls and boys learn and develop differently and that in a single-sex environment they will therefore have a greater propensity to flourish and ultimately to succeed. In a girls-only environment, stereotypes fly out of the window and everything and anything is an option to girls. They are free to take greater risks in their learning, they learn not be afraid of making mistakes, to speak out, and to put themselves forward. There are fewer distractions and inhibitions with no boys in the classroom complicating the social strata. In a world where inequalities still exist in so many quarters, it is imperative that girls and young women are encouraged to step up and to step forward, starting at the youngest possible age. A girls-only school can nurture and develop key character traits to ensure that girls are encouraged to be fearless, bold, risk-takers and are equipped with the requisite skills and characteristics to lead and to be successful, owning and celebrating their successes every step of the way. By focusing on, and understanding exactly how, girls learn and develop, and by promoting all careers paths and subject choices in an open and equitable manner, girls are empowered and are able to excel with no limits to their learning, or indeed to their aspirations and ambitions.

In a single-sex environment, the ways in which girls and boys learn differently can be fully understood to the advantage of every individual and girls can be themselves, where there is no place for so called ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ traits, and there is the opportunity to stamp out all conscious and unconscious biases. In a survey carried out in February 2017, which involved more than 8,600 young people and adults, 57 percent of teachers admitted to having made subconscious stereotypes about girls and boys in relation to sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. More than half of parents admitted to the same subconscious stereotyping and a further 54 percent of teachers claimed they had seen girls dropping the subjects at school due to pressure from parents. It is well known that when children start school they will have already developed their own understanding of their gender and this will continue throughout childhood and indeed into the teenage years. In schools, however, there is no place for gender bias, conscious or unconscious, or for preconceived social expectations and the single sex environment ensures that pupils are open minded, liberated from mixed messaging, and are educated to understand and realise that anything and everything is possible to them. Empowering every girl to be aspirational in all walks of life, developing her growth mindset, as well as her resilience, empathy and self-belief, will go a long way in ensuring that her future ambitions are not limited or curtailed. Furthermore, a single sex school allows girls to be who they want to be and have that crucial inner strength and confidence in all that they do which are paramount.

In a girls-only setting stereotypes and preconceived expectations disappear. The learning environment is significantly different because it is designed to educate girls and populated by staff who are experienced and trained to bring out the best in every girl. As a result, there are no barriers to her success and every girl is enabled to thrive, succeed and be happy, true to herself and to reach her potential. In a girls-only school nothing should ever hold a girl back.