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At several points over the last ten years or so we have made and re-made our decision to educate our daughters in a single-sex environment.  Their all-girls’ school has a very good academic reputation despite being situated in a rural county, one of the few counties without a university, and not being able to pull its pupils from a large metropolis. It’s fees are moderate compared to other private schools and its ethos is to offer a good education to bright girls from mixed backgrounds.

Now is one of those times when we have to look at our decision again, this time with our elder daughter, for she is now fifteen years old and too old to agree to go to a school that she does not want to go to, or to agree to stay at a school that she is not happy at. 

Many girls choose to leave the school, for various reasons.  There are the girls who have never been happy at the school, who cannot wait to leave.  We know a few of those.  There are the girls who think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, including those girls who have brothers at other schools.  There are those girls for whom the money has run out.  There are those girls who have struggled in an environment that is highly academic and who will choose a less pressured option.  There are those girls who want to study subjects that the girls’ school does not offer on its curriculum.  There are those girls whose parents have watched in horror as all the PLUs leave, and who will be sent away to suitable boarding schools where they may find the social mix more to their parents’ liking.  Sadly we know a few like this too, though it was not until last week that my husband heard a lawyer articulate it quite so obviously and repulsively.  There are those girls who see boarding school as a way to escape an unhappy home, or the loneliness of being the only chick still in the nest.  There are those girls who have been at the school since they were three, and just fancy a change.  And there are the lemmings who do not want to be left behind if there is a rush to leave.  And there are the girls, and their parents, who like the idea of being educated with boys, of being surrounded by the other sex.  A multitude of reasons for moving, but none seriously related to academic attainment since it is virtually impossible to improve on the results obtained by the girls who decide to remain at the school.  But then, education is about more than results.

We’ve looked at a couple of other schools with our daughter.  One very famous school she rejected as she could only have been a boarder there, and she does not want to board, though she would have chosen it over her own school if it had been closer to home.  This school only admits girls in the Sixth Form (the final two years) and struck us as exciting, anarchic, far from snobby, and infused by a culture of excellence and aspiration that made academic success seem inevitable.  But she is not ready to leave home yet.

The other school is comfortable, has a wider ability range, and also has boys.  It felt friendly, safe, has better music, larger classes, a nicer theatre, is situated in a town not in the wilds, is not wildly exciting but quite different to the very pink girls school, and we have no guarantee that our daughter would achieve the sort of results she needs to get through the entrance doors to university, doors which are narrow and hard to push open because she has chosen a profession that is more competitive than any other.  Our daughter would be new to the school, would worry about making new friends.  It would be a risk.

Into the soup of our indecision we now throw the recent comments of Vicky Tuck, President of the Girls’ School Association, and Head of Cheltenham Ladies College.  One imagine she knows a lot about educating girls, and she is not in two minds about which choice we should make:

“I have a hunch that in 50 years’ time, maybe only 25, people will be doubled up with laughter when they watch documentaries about the history of education and discover people once thought it was a good idea to educate adolescent boys and girls together.”

Her argument, supported by many, and adopted by the body than runs our daughters’ school, is that girls do better when they are educated alone, and that it is only because boys benefit from having girls around, and because we live in a male-dominated world, that some of us may – foolishly – have come to believe that girls need to be educated with boys.  Ms Tuck says:

“Far from living in the dying days of single-sex education, I am confident that as understanding of the brain continues to evolve, what is obvious to us will become obvious to everyone: girls learn in a different way to boys and it is crucial to cater for their separate needs.”

I, too, think that most girls think very differently to boys, preferring to spend a majority of their time in a different hemisphere of their brain.  A small minority of girls have male brains, and may be happier being taught alongside those with similar brains, and it seems likely that the reverse is true of a small minority of boys. 

Vicky Tuck argues a separate point elswhere – that it is fears about the early sexualisation of girls, about a coarsening of society, a Botox and binge society, that have led an increasing number of parents to choose to educate their girls privately.  She cites statistics to prove her point: the number of girls at independent (private) schools has risen by 14.5% over the last ten years and over the last three years numbers increased by 2% whilst there was only a 0.6% increase in the number of boys being educated privately in the same period. 

Since her statistics seem to apply to both single sex and co-educational independent schools, and she records a 40 year drift away from single-sex education for girls, it is difficult to use the figures as evidence that parents are increasingly opting for single sex education for girls, or that they are doing so because they believe that the education girls receive there will serve them better.  Indeed the Girls’ Day School Trust group of schools has seen it roll fall considerably over the past few years despite its best schools consistently out-performing boys’ and co-educational schools.  The Financial Times, in a report on September 12th this year, draws a more mixed picture, with some girls’ schools showing a slide in performance that belies the evidence generally that girls achieve higher grades when educated alone.

The Girls’ Day School Trust is the umbrella organisation of 29 highly successful girls’ schools in England and Wales – all bar one being day schools.  A graph records the overall relative success of all the schools in the Group at “A” level (18+):


The picture is a mixed one, then, and difficult for parents to fathom. The girls’ schools will tell you that you will do best to leave your daughters with them, that they will achieve higher results, be more likely to choose to study science subjects, be more likely to go on to a career in medicine or veterinary science, and have less pressure to look good. One headmistress of an all girls’ school even told me that she would do a better job of ensuring my daughters remained virgins.

The headmasters (or very occasionally headmistresses) of co-educational schools will tell you that education is about more than results and that our daughters will benefit from the stimulation that a mixed environment can offer and may do just as well academically (impossible to prove otherwise, since there is no control).

Both sorts of schools are worried about falling numbers. Especially as we look set on entering a recession.

And we have to choose.

Further reports on Vicky Tuck’s comments:
From the Guardian

From the Telegraph

From the Independent



At times … I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
expelling me
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!


But if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother
waiting for him,
or a father who’d put
his right hand over
the heart’s place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they’d set—
then I would not kill him,
even if I could.


Likewise … I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him.
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn’t bear his absence
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbors he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school …
asking about him
and sending him regards.


But if he turned
out to be on his own—
cut off like a branch from a tree—
without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbors or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness—
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I’d be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street—as I
convinced myself
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.

April 15, 2006


Just over a year ago I went to a poetry festival and heard this poem for the first time.  It has stayed with me, and I thought others might like to read it again, or for the first time.

It seems a shame when something that should be framed, hanging on the wall, a constant beacon, gets lost under a virtual pile of papers.  I’m glad the poet’s name stands out in the Tag Cloud I’ve added to the side bar on my blog.  I like the way the cloud is made up of all the things I’ve written about, that matter to me, so that the words come to define me, accidentally, without me noticing.

This year some friends went to the same poetry festival, and came to eat with us afterwards, but nothing seemed to have grabbed their attention like this forgiving poem on revenge, though the poetic lawyer read a few of his poems – a memory of his father, and the obligatory poem about a cat. I asked him, as a joke, whether he had a poem about a cat, because poets always write about cats (and I don’t like cats very much and wonder if this means that I won’t like poets very much), and, unsurprisingly, he had written about cats, and so he read that. I’d print it here, but it’s too rude.

In the summer we took our daughters to hear Margaret Atwood recite some of her poems. We sat on the floor, and could barely see her as she hid behind her lectern.  She read several about cats, including one about her favourite cat who always came and slept on her face, and she described his neat little pink bum hole. And Lola B only remembered that one line from all the poems that Margaret Atwood had read, and I laugh as I remember, because it seemed like her revenge on her parents who were trying to educate her, and because I cannot remember any other lines either.

Our lawyerly poet also coined a new way of describing our daughters which I liked very much though it took me a long time to decipher his handwriting.  I wonder if all poets have illegible handwriting too.

[With thanks to Sami for the loan of a photo that I’ve wanted to use for a while.]

My Dad had a weakness for sentimental songs. I remember this record being played over and over again when I was a child. And I remembered the book that I’ve kept all these years and I thought it a strange thing that they shared a theme.



“Very sexy and quite violent, it is both super-cool and immensely gripping”.  Doesn’t sound suitable for the children, does it?  But we took our daughters to see La Tragédie de Carmen at the weekend.  This is a concentrated version of Bizet’s opera Carmen staged with all the blackness and inevitability and futility of the theatre of the absurd, retaining all the best music from the opera, just dripping with bloody emotion.

Carmen is no longer a gypsy.  She is the sort of fearless woman dessicated by nicotine, whose life has been hard, the tribulations or which are etched on her face, and who no longer gives a damn.  She will take what she can, use it, consume it, spit it out, and move on without so much as a backward glance over her shoulder from her steel eyes that do not let you in but only reflect your own folly.  She hangs out in books by Charles Bukowski, on Coronation Street.  She is Carla Bruni, stripped of all her wealth.  She is animal passion, untempered by faith or habit.  She is compelling.  She grinds her heel into the soft, needy Don Jose as she strides towards the hard, glistening pectorals of the bullfighter, Escamillo.  And within Don Jose red Jealousy rises up, an ugly unstoppable torrent of pent-up desire.

Trains drowned out the auditorium, shadowy burlesque figures faded in and out, seedy rooms with shafts of light slammed out by endless doors, keeping the badness in.  And through it all.  Carmen with her bird-like love.


The Spy was there, with his bird-like wife.  They had seen the very first productions of this version of Carmen, in Paris in 1981, and were so engulfed by the performance that they went again the next night.  Brook had his own theatre, the Bouffes du Nord, dark, intimate, down at heel. It is still open


The very English sounding Brook had been born in England to Russian parents.  Bryk becoming Brouck, then Brook.  He was educated at Westminster, Gresham’s and Magdalen College, Oxford and moved to live in France in the 1970s.  In 1971 he set up the International Centre for Theatre Research  (CIRT – Centre International de Recherche Théâtrale) with Micheline Rozan, funded by the French government and private foundations.  The troupe travelled the Middle East and Africa, performing and trying to extract the essence of theatre from the muliplicity of forms and experiences that were native to each country they visited.  He was inspired in his work by experimental playwrights, by Antonin’s Artaud’s concept of Theatre of Cruelty, that “Without an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle, the theater is not possible. In our present state of degeneration it is through the skin that metaphyics must be made to re-enter our minds” (Artaud, The Theatre and its Double).  Cruelty was not violence, but the courage to strip away polite masks and show the audience raw truth instead.

We asked Elder Daughter whether she had enjoyed it, whether she had recognised the music. She reminded us that she had played a Carmen medley on the same stage in a school concernt, and I saw her suddenly as older than she had been. On Monday morning she came home from school and told me she had watched Lord of the Flies (1963) and that it, too, had been directed by Peter Brook, and I felt glad that we had taken them to see La Tragédie de Carmen, that we had ignored their teenage protestations.

L’amour est un oiseau rebelle
Que nul ne peut apprivoiser,
Et c’est bien en vain qu’on l’appelle
S’il lui convient de refuser.
Rien n’y fait menace ou prière,
L’un parle bien, l’autre se tait,
Et c’est l’autre que je préfère,
Il n’a rien dit mais il me plaît.

L’amour, l’amour,
L’amour est enfant de Bohème,
Il n’a jamais jamais connu de loi,
Si tu ne m’aimes pas je t’aime,
Si je t’aime prends garde à toi.

L’amour que tu croyais surprendre
Battit de l’aile et s’envola,
L’amour est loin, tu peux l’attendre,
Tu ne l’attends plus, il est là.
Tout autour de toi, vite, vite,
Il vient, s’en va, puis il revient,
Tu crois le tenir, il t’évite,
Tu crois l’éviter, il te tient.

Essay on La Tragedie de Carmen


Performances in Tunbridge Wells and Cambridge over the next few weeks …