Interview: ‘While there is inequality in the world, there will always be a place for girls-only education’

Rosie McColl became head of Brighton Girls in January 2020, following deputy headships at Wellington College and Berkhamsted School

Please tell us a little about your journey into teaching.

Becoming a teacher was the last thing I wanted to do – both my parents were teachers and I witnessed how exhausted they were much of the time. However, I have always followed my passion and, by the time I was ready for the world of work, I had two English degrees under my belt and a love for my subject. Teaching was the obvious and only choice, and I haven’t looked back.

I have always tried to immerse myself in all aspects of school life, whether playing in the school big band, as I did at Berkhamsted School, or more recently joining the sea squad at Brighton Girls. Headship was never the goal – the only one I have ever had is to keep learning and developing, to enjoy my work and to go where I feel I can make a difference.

The number of independent schools taking a co-educational path grows by the year. Would you ever be tempted to follow it?

While there is inequality in the world, there will always be a place for girls-only education. Put simply: there is work to do. Our aim is to create an environment in which girls can flourish, and we do this by providing a safe space for them to discover their passions and develop their strengths, alongside teachers who are experts in understanding the pressures and the challenges of being a young woman in the world today.

We could talk about glass ceilings, the STEM gap, the gender pay gap, the ways in which girls are exploited by social media but, whatever barriers we face (or perceive we face), girls’ schools play a crucial role in instilling students with the confidence and self-belief to overcome them.

As a girls’ school, we can focus our energies on ensuring that students are equipped with everything they need to go out and make a difference in the world, with the belief that nothing is beyond their grasp.

This may involve deliberately subverting gender stereotypes or inviting brilliant women to speak to our students – most recently we’ve heard from a woman
who rowed across the Atlantic, a successful local entrepreneur, and an alumna who works as a gaming programmer.

Whatever barriers we face, girls’ schools play a crucial role in instilling students with the confidence and self-belief to overcome them

You comprehensively marked Science Week at the school. Is this an area where being an all-girl establishment is a benefit?

There is overwhelming evidence that single-sex settings encourage greater diversity of subject choice; the number of our students opting to study STEM subjects at A-level is far higher than the national average. One of the most effective ways of championing girls in this field is to introduce them to role models – and in a girls’ only environment there are plenty to go around – so our Science Week this year was all about getting senior students to our prep pupils.

We had lines of prep pupils ready to be inducted into the ways of senior science, and that means Bunsen burners, fire, controlled explosions but, most importantly, a whole gang of big sisters on hand to help.

We also welcomed Dr Susie Maidment from the Natural History Museum, an inspirational scientist who was taught by our head of science in his previous school – a superb role model for our students.

Your senior string quartet recently played Vivaldi at a local church and year 9/10 pupils staged their own interpretation of Romeo & Juliet at a nearby theatre. What is the value of the performing arts to your girls?

The ability to see the world from multiple perspectives; the ability to laugh at yourself; the chance to develop body confidence; the chance to get things right and receive immediate feedback; the chance to get things wrong and receive applause anyway; the opportunity to work with others. We have commissioned our own ‘Laugh and like yourself’ course and, this year, our Improvisation Club has been one of the most popular clubs on offer. When it comes to building confidence, the performing arts play a crucial role.

Are you pleased about the return of the first formal exams since 2019?

It is a relief to everyone. Clarity and certainty are important to us all and, while not many students would say they relish the arrival of the examination season, at least this year there is familiarity in routine. We have made time to practise the basics, and carved out additional time for a new wellbeing curriculum, which aims to equip students with a ‘toolkit’ for managing stress and anxiety.

School life might be returning to normal, but education remains a challenging field. What is the biggest issue to keep you awake at night?

Whether the current educational model is flexible enough to meet the needs of all individuals, and whether things are changing quickly enough. Too often, we focus on a standard expectation or mythical average. Change is painfully slow.

Finally, a little about you away from school. What constitutes a typical weekend? What was the last book/TV programme/piece of music you enjoyed?

Spending time with my family, swimming in the sea, hanging out on the beach with my eight-year-old son, meandering around the Lanes in Brighton or escaping to the Downs for walks. The last book I enjoyed was Golden Hill by Francis Spufford and, recently, I’ve been enjoying season three of Derry Girls – the soundtrack and political backdrop take me back to being a teenager in the 1990s and provide a welcome dose of nostalgia (and the headmistress amuses me by saying some of the things I am often tempted to say, but can’t).

You might also like: Interview: Donna Stevens, Girls’ Schools Association

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