Science of Single-Sex School Equals Success

We may now have our second female Prime Minister and a female First Minister, but the reality is still that men outnumber women in professions such as engineering and technology, in the financial sector and in the boardroom. Furthermore, they still get paid more for the same work. Over my career, I have been struck by the capacity of single-sex schools to give girls the courage and opportunity to develop a strong sense of self in an environment free from stereotype or gender-weighted expectation.

In an all-girls’ school there is no such thing as a girl’s subject or a boy’s subject and girls are free to follow their own interests and aptitudes. In our school, beyond maths and English, chemistry has the highest uptake, and this year over 60% of our 2017 leavers have gone on to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects at university. It is not just that the absence of boys immediately eradicates stereotype in subject choice. Working with only girls in the classroom, we can teach in a way that appeals to them and that sparks an interest in a subject which might never have emerged in a mixed classroom. Our recent competition to name new laboratories after famous female scientists led to visits by astrophysicist, Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and forensic anthropologist, Professor Dame Sue Black, whose own personal stories undoubtedly inspired the next generation of female scientists.

Anecdotal examples of the reduction of gender stereotype in subject choice in girls’ schools are repeatedly borne out by research. A study by The Institute of Physics, It’s Different for Girls, found that girls in single-sex schools were more likely to continue to study physics to an advanced level.[1] This research reflected what the Independent Schools Council (ISC) found when comparing the propensity of girls in Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) schools to study STEM subjects. Girls at GSA schools are 75 per cent more likely to take mathematics A level, 70% more likely to take chemistry, two and a half times as likely to take physics and over twice as likely to take most languages.[2]

For the best part of 20 years I have taught in Scottish girls’ schools, learning environments quite different to my own co-educational schooling in Lancashire. Now as a headteacher, I am frequently asked about the benefits of a single-sex school for girls. Put simply, in an all-girls’ school we have the advantage of being able to design every aspect of our academic, pastoral and extra-curricular provision to meet the needs of girls at their different developmental stages.

Few would dispute that boys and girls develop physically and emotionally at different rates and that there are physiological differences between the male and female brains, although current exciting debate raises the possibility that these differences are influenced by the environment in which children are raised. In general, and there are, of course, always exceptions, girls and boys do learn in different ways and excel at different things. It is the teacher’s job to understand the needs of his or her particular class and to plan learning experiences accordingly. To be blunt, in an all-girls’ school we can put all our energy into getting it right for the girls.

This is not only true of approaches to learning and teaching but also in the way in which the school building can be presented and run. A relatively informal approach to the management of pupils at breaks and lunchtimes is often more practical in an all-girls’ environment. While girls too may need the option to let off steam outside, senior school girls are far more likely to relax in their form rooms if they are not at a club or activity. The feeling that they have positive relationships with their teachers matters to girls, and a relaxed environment where they can pop in to ask a teacher a question out of class allows them to take intellectual risks with confidence.

Our sixth years are full of their own ideas as to what the benefits have been for them of a single-sex education. They are keen to point out that an all-girls’ environment is not just conducive to the blossoming of intellectual confidence but to physical self-assurance too. With only girls in the gym and on the sports field they assert that girls can throw themselves unselfconsciously into physical activity with fewer cares about how they look. They are also quick to redress the idea that a girls’ school does not prepare them for the ‘real’ world. Reflecting on their participation at a recent national co-educational debating conference, they felt more than able to make and defend points and to tackle all opponents and all topics in a debating forum. They attributed this to the numerous leadership and mentoring opportunities they had experienced, in an environment where all such roles are fulfilled by girls. One girl commented that she thought that she was less judgmental about boys because of her single-sex education while another explained that “we have learned to value ourselves based not on the opinions of the opposite sex but on the merits of our own character and the effort we have put into our achievements.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Anna Tomlinson 

Head, St Margaret’s School for Girls

[1] Institute of Physics, It’s Different for Girls: The Influence of Schools, October 2012

[2] Independent Schools Council, How Good are Girls, 20 November 2013

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