The gender agenda

It’s different for girls: Rebecca Tear, headmistress of Badminton School, Bristol, argues the case for single-sex education

There are many reasons why parents choose to send their children to a single-sex school and rightly so, as every child is an individual and that is the single most important consideration when choosing the right school for them. Whilst there is no hard and fast rule that “girls learn this way and boys learn that way”, single-sex education creates amazing opportunities because there are no stereotypes; students will find much greater freedom to express themselves and pursue their interests. Arguably the single greatest benefit of a single-sex education is the breadth of educational opportunity which students enjoy; they do not just have access to equal opportunities, but rather to every opportunity. By choosing a single-sex school, it is important to remember that you have also chosen a specialist in that sphere of education and that, of course, has its benefits.

In such an environment, the pupils naturally assume that all options for the future are open to them. This creates enormous freedom for them to discover what they enjoy and what they excel at, not just academically, but also beyond the classroom. Developing in a setting where they do not feel self-conscious allows them to take academic risks and grow into confident individuals. As a small community in the West Country, Badminton, like so many other GSA schools, enjoys a good placing in the academic league tables and is able to celebrate the students’ successes at university and beyond. In addition, Badminton bucks national trends by routinely seeing a significant number of girls studying, and succeeding in, STEM subjects at A level (currently 75 per cent of the sixth form take at least one optional STEM subject post-16), supporting the theory that girls embrace a wider range of challenges in a single-sex environment. Education minister Elizabeth Truss has commented – in her speech at the Institute of Physics last December, for example – that “the issue for girls is not competence, it’s confidence”. This is exactly where the benefits of a single-sex environment become immediately apparent. 

Also, as girls and boys mature at different rates, it makes sense to tailor learning to fit their developmental needs. This removes any potential pressure in a classroom context. We recognise that life is ‘co-ed’, but by the time students move on to university or careers they are out of the adolescent stages of their lives and are ready to confidently be the person they discovered through those challenging years of growing up. Ensuring that girls have experience of working with others, both male and female, from beyond the small school community remains important, and so shared revision classes, day seminars and conferences, which encourage group academic debate with students from beyond their school, are still important to supplement the specialist single-sex core environment.

Justine, one of the head girls at Badminton, comments on her views as a pupil who has experienced single-sex secondary education for six years: “A lot of people see being in a single-sex school as being boring. But I say they have not truly experienced the spirit of it. Single-sex education has given me space to grow in a relaxed environment, where everyone around me knows what it feels like to be a girl, in a family and in society. The sense of unity, the urge we feel to protect another woman when faced with injustice is unique to an all-girls’ school. In a society where gender inequality is hidden under the surface, being in an all-girls’ school allowed me to surpass the stereotypes of women and achieve my ambitions. I have been able to make some of the most sincere friends during my time in school; I have truly enjoyed it. Some say this is because I know no better. Yet I argue that I already know the best.”

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