Why should girls’ schools have to make their case? A riposte to Lord Lucas

If you read today’s Times or Telegraph, you will see headlines that suggest that girls’ schools are a dying breed: ‘Pull your socks up or you’ll die out, peer tells girls’ schools’; ‘Girls’ schools ‘going out of fashion’, expert warns’ – although the print edition of The Times has the rather more accurate headline “Girls’ schools give chauvinist peer a lesson in single-sex education”. Read the articles themselves and you will realise that they contain the opinions – and generally only the opinions – of Lord Ralph Lucas, peer and executive editor of the Good Schools’ Guide; if you read carefully, you may well be able to detect a base of underlying prejudice and – to put it mildly – chauvinism, which warrants further exploration and rebuttal. Lord Lucas visited St Mary’s Calne on Monday at our invitation, to meet girls from a number of girls’ schools and to adjudicate two debates, experience a presentation and participate in a discussion on ‘Girls’ Schools in the 21st Century’. Not a single person at that event was in any way convinced by his views; discerning readers of The Times and Telegraph should not be either.

All of us from time to time fall into the trap of thinking that newspapers provide us solely with facts and ‘truth’; in actual fact, however, newspapers are designed to stimulate thinking and to promote debate – all elements of a healthy society. All the journalists I have met have been smart, intelligent people who write well and often provocatively, challenging the reader to interpret what they see in front of them. Little space exists for lengthy balanced essays, and journalists have to make decisions about what to include in order to encourage reaction. This is why you won’t find in either of today’s articles a number of statistics that are publically available and that support the choice of parents to send their daughters to all girls’ schools:

  • In 2011, 22.3% of A Level exam entries from girls in Girls’ Schools Association (‘GSA’) schools were awarded the top A* grade, as compared with 18.3% from girls from co-educational independent schools.
  • 59.6% of A Level exam entries from GSA girls were awarded grade A or higher (ie A / A*) in 2011, as compared with 52.8% from girls from co-educational independent schools.
  • Compared to all girls nationally, in GSA schools over 70% more girls took A Level maths; over 50% more girls took a science at A Level; over 90% more girls took a physical science (physics or chemistry) at A Level; and over 80% more girls studied French, German or Spanish at A Level.
  • 95% of sixth formers in independent girls’ schools go on to higher education and 92.5% to university. This is the highest university transition rate in the independent schools sector.
  • Eight of the top 10 places in the 2011 Times A Level league table are GSA schools.

Moreover, Lord Lucas’s own Good Schools’ Guide website lists evidence, drawing on their own research, that shows that girls do better academically in all girls’ schools. Convincing stuff.

Single-sex education is in demand; figures about numbers of schools are spurious, as an analysis of the latest ISC census shows that of all the girls who attend Independent Schools Council accredited schools, almost 40% attend Girls’ Schools Association schools. Between the years of 7 and 11, 40-43% of all ISC schools teach those children in single-sex environments, even in Sixth Form. There is a strong argument here, too, for parental choice – girls’ schools should be part of a range of options for parents looking to educate their daughters; without them, the educational scene is a far less healthy place.

These arguments for all girls’ schools are supported by a strong social argument – that teenage years are a turbulent time, when girls and boys benefit from taking some time, as part of their co-education existence in this world of constant communication in which they are all busily engaged – to build relationships with their own gender, to understand themselves, to learn to like themselves and value themselves for who they are. Gigi Perry, Head Girl at St Mary’s, spoke fluently and articulately about this on Monday, as did a great girl from Burgess Hill who compared from her direct experience the greater freedom and opportunities available to girls in all girls’ schools. Gigi also commented astutely, after the event, about the inbuilt prejudices that she and her contemporaries had witnessed: ‘The general consensus was that given his level of influence, it was hypocritical (and unfair) to emphasise the need for girls schools to try harder to ‘break the glass ceiling’/challenge the stereotype, as it is something that can only be done if people in his position are on board to push the changes through as well.’

And this is the crux of it. Why should girls’ schools, more than any other type of school, have to prove a rationale for their existence? Would we ask the same of a co-ed school, for instance? Or would we just assume that they had no case to make? What does this actually say about the inbuilt prejudices that our society continues to hold about places of education for women? Girls’ schools are vibrant, warm exciting, aspirational seats of learning. They prepare girls exceptionally well for the fulfilling lives that lie ahead of them. Clearly – as can be deduced from both of today’s articles – girls’ schools still also need to help to prepare girls for a world in which they are still going to have to face the inbuilt prejudices about women of a society that is still in transition, still coming to terms with gender equality. The legislation may be in place, but there is still much that needs to be done to overcome ancient views of women, and girls need to be prepared to challenge these.

Lord Lucas confessed that he was impressed with the girls he met, and they were indeed  all extremely impressive in their forthrightness, their ability to see and understand the world, and their commitment to make the most of their lives and to make the world a better place. Take a moment to look at the photo in the Times – those fantastic girls are the future of the world. And they all come from a girls’ school.

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