Vicky Tuck: “What girls’ schools do is promote a can-do attitude. I’m not saying you don’t get that approach in co-education schools, but there’s something very special and unique when everything is geared towards girls. There’s a climate of encouragement and focus.
“A lot of people think that focus means pressure, but that’s misleading. In an all-girls school, some of the stresses and anxieties of growing up are set aside and that’s very liberating. The classroom becomes a dynamic and creative place.
“This kind of environment can prove very successful. The Girls’ School Association (GSA) recently gathered data from girls’ schools and girls in co-education and the difference in exam performance was really striking. Please don’t think that I regard exam results as the only things that matter. They matter in that they are the passport to the future that we want for our girls.
The days of the cave
“People do ask how this environment prepares girls for later life, where they will be working with many different people and perhaps in a male-dominated environment. It comes down to two things: women are supposed to be the multi-taskers and the men are supposed to be the single-minded ones. The theory is that this goes back to the days of the cave when the man went out hunting and the woman cooked the meals and looked after the children and kept the cave tidy!
“Women do multi-task very well and the girls at our schools need to as they have so much going on in their life – academically, socially and in terms of extra-curricular activities – they’re juggling lots of things. But they’re also able to be ‘cavemen’, by being single-minded and focused rather than distracted. That’s not to say that they don’t have heaps of male friends. It’s just that this part of their life is compartmentalised rather than being all-absorbing.
“Secondly, if you go back to the story of the Garden of Eden, which has influenced attitudes down the ages, the woman was formed in the image of man. No matter how much women have achieved over the years, many people who still see woman as subordinate to man. You can’t be subordinate in an all-girls school – they are our reason for existing and everything is geared around them.
So through these sometimes turbulent years of development and adolescence, the confidence and self-belief we encourage equips the girls to deal with any arrogance or chauvinism that they might encounter later on.
“We also try to get the girls to be more male in how they set about things. The stereotype is that the girls sit there all docile, doing the bidding of the teacher, and boys are challenging, laugh-a-minute, spiky risk-takers. What we do is to import and nurture some of those male qualities – the girls are still diligent, motivated and focused, but they’re also challenged and challenging, thinking outside the box and able to show initiative.
“We’ve got to turn them into independent women so that when they leave they’re resilient. The temptation to lay everything on for them has to be resisted in favour of intellectual challenge.
“But, if you really want to be convinced, listen to the girls. At the end of last term, some of those who were leaving told us what they valued about their time at Cheltenham. They said the College had inspired them with a love of learning, that it had motivated them, filled them with determination and the confidence to believe in themselves.”
Trinity is both a day and boarding school and is located close to the coast at Teignmouth
Tim Waters: “I believe that the chief advantage of co-ed schools is that they develop pupils into rounded, capable personalities able to deal with anything that the modern working world can throw at them.”While I have seen many examples of fantastic practice at single sex schools, I feel that being on an equal footing with members of the opposite sex from the word go is vital in making young people totally at ease by the time they leave us.
“If you look ahead to when a person is 25, it’s 99 per cent likely he or she will be working in a mixed gender environment and the earlier we all get used to that the better.
“I used to teach at co-educational Portsmouth Grammar and one of the things that struck me was the huge amount of mutual support and monitoring that went on between the girls and boys. With sport, it’s great to be in the first XV or the netball team and the boys and girls support each other across those teams. That helps pupils to develop self-esteem and is more important than same-gender support.
Complex social web
“The complex social web that you get at a co-ed school is very good at absorbing problems and helping teachers to work with the pupils and iron out problems. For instance, at Portsmouth we had groups of girls acting as ‘canaries’ when there were bullying issues among the boys. Likewise we had boys coming to us with concerns about eating disorder problems among some of the girls. You get these situations where the ‘vice’ of one gender will be exposed in an early tip-off that you might not get so soon in a single sex school.
“Behaviour is also moderated when the sexes are mixed. You see it in the classroom, for instance when dealing with text in an English class. Boys who are a bit bullish are forced to reflect and be more empathetic when girls are around. Also, some of the girls think ‘johnny’s got bravura and confidence, perhaps I could learn from that’.
“Yes, there are differences between male and female learning styles, but that’s true of any group of people in the classroom. It’s down to the skill of the teacher to differentiate. Any class will contain a variety of pupils, some for instance might have special needs, some may be extroverts, others introverts. The teachers twist and turn the lessons so that they include insight from both.
Look beyond the league tables
“Single sex schools may regularly top the league tables but in 2006, the Headmaster and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) commissioned a major research programme that found there is no difference between co-ed and single sex schools. It may appear that a single sex school is out-performing a co-ed school, but if the single sex school is a quarter the size of the co-ed, it can select out a very refined group of pupils who will achieve excellent results. The co-ed school has to go lower down the academic distribution in order to fill its places.
“I believe that pupils at single sex schools would perform just as well if they were at equally good co-ed schools and that any problems over distractions would soon be dealt with. Distraction will always occur in one form or another, but if you learn to deal with the distraction at the age of 14 and it’s no longer an issue, then that’s a life skill. If, however, you’ve never learnt to deal with it and are at university or working – a far more critical time of your life when you have less access to guidance – the distraction is far more likely to be destructive.
“Our pupils might not get as much classroom time aimed in the pro-girl or pro-boy direction that they might in a single sex school, but they learn so much in terms of breadth of perspective and that more than makes up for it.”
Gail Dixon is the editor of www.tom-brown.com – the essential guide to schools in the UK
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