Girl Power: In Defence Of Single Sex Schools

01/02/2011 11:57 | Updated 22 May 2015

Last week I was saddened to hear about the demise of all-girls schools. According to the recent publication of The Good Schools Guide, girls-only schools accounted for just 13 per cent of the leading establishments in their ratings – which was the lowest proportion since the list started in 1986.

I know that the educational benefit of all-female education is still a very hotly contested issue, with studies showing different results. However, anyone who just focuses on what effects single sex education has on girls' grades is missing the bigger advantage.

Having attended a girls-only school myself, after a stint at a co-ed primary, I have nothing but praise for the system which helped build me into the confident and often highly loquacious woman I am told I am today. Prior to joining my girls-only school, I was a precocious madam purely because of a total pre-occupation with impressing my unruly male counterparts - which led to me being as naughty as possible. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I was only seven years old. Can you imagine the amount of work and personal development that would never have been achieved had I stayed at a mixed school during my hormonal teens?

Girls' schools, in spite of all of the truthful stereotypes which describe them as breeding grounds for eating disorders and eye-watering bitchiness, are also wonderful havens which are needed and craved during a girl's most important stages of development.

Women are fundamentally different to men and as a consequence, have different needs – especially when it comes to schooling and social development when at their most malleable. A more salacious difference being a body temperatures – girls apparently learn better in a classroom warmed to 24C, while boys operate best at 21C.

A more serious difference is society's perception of both genders. Only this week has it emerged that teachers of mixed sex classes should avoid asking pupils to put up their hands because boys dominate 75 per cent of the tutor's attention, which leaves girls feeling understandably demoralised, says new research from The Girls' Day School Trust.

This is a brilliant example of the need for the haven of the female-only school. Girls have the rest of their lives to battle it out with men: at university, in the workplace and around the dinner table. It is at school that they learn the valuable tools with which to handle these, and the many other types of battles, which inevitably lie ahead.

However, to all those people who argue that single-sex schools are pointless because they do not represent the real mixed gender world, I would say school is the training ground for the real world and not the other way around.

Girls, as well as boys, need to develop uninhibited. It was incredibly liberating at school to never worry about looking stupid in front of a boy I might fancy while repeatedly failing to do a cartwheel or getting maths questions wrong.

However, it was because I kept fearlessly putting my hand up (in spite of my lack of aptitude) that I actually learned from my mistakes, progressing in both maths and as a person. I am still not afraid to put my hand up when I don't understand something and run the risk of looking stupid – a necessary skill for a journalist.

Girls-only schools forge a more cosseted environment for their pupils to experiment freely with ideas, without being worried that they might be shouted down or laughed at by members of the opposite sex.

Plus, as the latest studies show, it is mighty handy for learning purposes that there are no boys to get distracted by in classes.

In fact ground-breaking research carried out by The Good Schools Guide in March 2009, showed that girls at single-sex, non-selective state schools outperformed girls of the same intelligence at mixed comprehensives. The study, which the first of its kind, also supported a Government-backed review carried out in 2007, which recommended that the sexes should be taught differently to maximise results, amid fears that girls tend to be pushed aside in mixed-sex classrooms.

There seems to be less empirical research as to whether boys' grades improve when educated separately. However interesting research published last year, also showed that boys need a similar haven away from girls to fulfil their full potential.

The study, published by the University of Virginia, showed that boys' schools were the perfect places to teach young men to express their emotions and to develop without the pressure to conform to a masculine stereotype. Again the atmosphere that single sex schools provide was shown to have boosted boys' involvement with arty subjects – such as dance and music – often perceived to be more 'feminine'.

It is up to the parents of children who attend single sex schools to ensure that during the kids' social time, that they are equally exposed to boys and girls. This is how my parents handled it, just to make sure I didn't go insane at the first sniff of a boy at the university gates.

If that social balance is struck early on, girls and boys educated separately can solely concentrate on developing both emotionally and educationally during school hours.

Emma Barnett is the Digital Media Editor of The Daily Telegraph. She writes about media, culture, technology and social issues and has a monthly column in The Sunday Telegraph. Emma is also a broadcaster, regularly contributing to BBC Radio 4, Radio 5 Live, Sky News, CNN and LBC. Additionally she has written for The Times, The Sunday Times, Esquire Magazine, TimeOut London, The Stage Newspaper and Media Week. She can be found tweeting via @emmabarnett.


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