Girls-Only Boarding Schools 'Disappearing' Amid Stories Of Bullying And Bitchiness
It has not been a great year for single-sex boarding schools.
Knocking their reputation at the the beginning of the year was the news that Kate Middleton had been bullied so severely at Downe House, an all girls' boarding school in Berkshire, that she left in the middle of her first year. In the public imagination, it cemented the stereotypical idea of girls schools being bitchy, harsh environments to be endured.
This came against the backdrop of another year of economic contraction. The Independent Schools Council calculated that the average boarding fee per term was £8,384 for the past academic year. With fees therefore working out around £25,000 a year, families wanting to cut down on costs are likely to question their expenditure on expensive schooling.
The Good Schools Guide selection highlighted the diminishing popularity of all-girls’ schools overall, as more parents chose co-educational schools for their daughters. Girls’ schools now represent only 13 per cent of the leading state and independent schools selected for the Guide. It is the lowest proportion since the list began in 1986, when 27 per cent were girls’ only schools. Since the mid-nineties, 130 single-sex schools have either become co-educational or have closed down.
On the plus side, single-sex boarding schools continue to achieve some of the highest academic standards in the country. They disproportionally dominate examination league tables, and admissions figures for the Russell Group universities.
Advocates of single-sex schooling have long argued that children, particularly girls, achieve more academically when they are taught separately, taking as evidence the fact that single-sex boarding schools, such as Winchester and Eton, Wycombe Abbey and Cheltenham Ladies' College, consistently top school league tables.
However, the only schools now confident of remaining single-sex are those performing at the very top of their game as the others fall by the wayside. The performance of those top few schools are more a reflection of their schools' hyper-selectiveness and strong teaching, than the overall virtues of single-sex education.
In the past, arguments about the merits of single-sex education have tended to focus on academic performance rather the emotional well-being. But even if children are performing well at these schools remaining single-sex schools intellectually, what is the more intangible cost to the pupils of being separated from the opposite sex?
Dr Helen Wright, head of St Mary’s Calne and president of the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA), has argued: “Being apart from each other during the school day seems to give both boys and girls greater self-esteem – which is, of course, at the root of successful long-term relationships with others of both genders.”
However, even if in the short-term one could argue both genders are more relaxed in a homosocial setting, could this delay their ability to form relationships with each other?
Dr Anthony Seldon is the widely-acclaimed master of Wellington College, one of the most traditional of all-boys public schools. He made the school fully co-educational in 2006.
Seldon explained to the Financial Times: “Boys and girls spend a lot of time thinking about sex. To imagine that they will stop thinking about each other in a sexual way if taught in different schools is madness. Healthier relationships can be formed if boys and girls grow up alongside each other and learn to accept each other as human beings first and foremost, rather than fantasise about each other as sex objects.”
Indeed, not only can single-sex boarders develop a warped view of the opposite sex, but girls left to their own devices do not seem to always bring out the best in each other either.
A former student of Wycombe Abbey, who left for a mixed boarding school in sixth form, told the Huffington Post UK: "We were encouraged to set ourselves impossibly high standards and the other girls became obsessive about every aspect of their lives; from their weight, to their popularity, to their grades. It was a pressure cooker. In the end, I just had to leave".
Alexandra Warder, who went to Benenden, agrees that she remembers her school as "not exactly a snake pit, but not far off. If you didn't have the personality to rise above it, then you were in dangerous waters. I was never bullied myself, but I did see some horrendous behaviour."
In the present climate, girls-only schools will find it harder to survive than their boys-only counterparts if their popularity continues to dwindle, as few of them have the financial endowments to carry them through lean years. Even if they do maintain their academic standards, parents are sure to be put off by the steep and increasing fees, and still more so by the bad reputation for pastoral care they have earned themselves.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred to Dr Helen Wright as the "former head" of St Mary’s Calne. Dr. Wright is in fact the current head of the school. She is concurrently President of the GSA.