This week I have been attending the annual Girls’ Schools Association Heads’ conference, which this year is in Liverpool, and – as ever – it has been a great opportunity to reflect on wider issues concerning the education and development of girls. The speakers have been stimulating, and none more so than Professor Carrie Paechter, who spoke on Monday about the dynamics between girls, and how these could affect their wellbeing. Her comments were reported widely in the press; she said that research has shown that sociable and apparently successful girls were often not as happy as we might imagine them to be – the pressure on them to be ‘perfect’ undid any perceived advantage or status they might seem to have. It is in fact entirely untrue that it is ‘cool’ to be ‘cool’.
I agree entirely – and said as much in the Daily Mail, in one of the pieces where Professor Paechter was quoted. It is a complete myth that being part of a clique – even one that appears to be desired by other girls – is a route to happiness. This myth is fed by teenage Hollywood films and our cult of celebrity, which centres on the Queen Bee and her entourage. Life around a Queen Bee looks good from the outside – it looks glamorous and ‘happening’ but on scratching the surface, very quickly we realise what underpins these relationships: insecurity, a fear of rejection, and a deep worry that favoured members of the group will drop out of favour and lose their place. It is no wonder that such cliques foster unhealthy competition, unkindness, and even cruelty. The relationships are essentially dysfunctional and harmful.
You will recognise the description of this kind of girl-girl relationship, for it is widely accepted that girls can be, and are, mean to one another in groups. Ponder for a moment on how we have come to a point in our society where we find this kind of behaviour by girls both admirable and repugnant – where, arguably, society lauds and encourages it in order to be able to say, with mock piety, that girls can’t get on with other girls …
In fact, as Professor Paecheter pointed out, girls are perfectly able to get on with one another, and from my own experience as the Head of a girls’ school, I can testify to the amazing depth of lifelong friendships that emerge from the crucible of teenagehood. Meanness and cruelty are not inevitable in female friendships, and it is harmful to girls to suggest that they are. Of course girls need structure and guidance in their friendship groupings – what young person doesn’t? Schools can help by creating strong structures to support these groupings – a clear ethos that everyone is equal, and that individual differences are valued, and practical steps such as ensuring that teachers, not pupils, decide who they will sit and work with.
For the sake of our daughters, we need to dismantle the myth of the ‘cool’ clique and replace it with the truth of the richness of varied human relationships. Professor Paechter’s research has helped us along the way.