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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+):

a-levels-graph

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

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