by Matthew Parry
Deputy Head – Curriculum, St Catherine’s Prep School, Bramley
As a father of two girls of primary school age, I have a vested interest in the educational options available to them. That being said, I think I’m safe in saying that I am not your stereotypical advocate of girls’ only education. As the son of a coal miner and having been educated in co-ed state schools in south Wales, girls’ only education was something that didn’t enter my consciousness until I moved to Surrey in 2013. Whilst I was aware that many of the highest achieving schools in the area were single-sex, I didn’t really stop and think about the benefits of a girls’ only environment until I came to work in a girls’ only school myself.
The first thing that struck me when I began teaching a class made up entirely of girls was that roles within the classroom that were almost always filled by boys in a co-ed classroom, (the joker, the loud child, the sporty child, and so on) were now occupied by girls. I know I never actively encouraged boys to occupy these roles in any of the classrooms that I taught, however, whether it be a result of unconscious bias or societal expectations, that was the classroom dynamic I was usually faced with. In a girls’ only environment, the girls were free of these expectations and could choose to occupy any role they wished without fear of judgement by others. This also extended to the academic subjects that they enjoyed and knowledge they pursued. Science, mathematics and PE were no longer ‘boys’ subjects’, they were just subjects that some of the class really, really enjoyed. At our school, 56% of girls took A Level maths in 2022, the most popular A Level subject option compared to 8.1% nationally.
The activities on the playground weren’t too dissimilar from those observed during my time teaching in co-ed schools, it was just that there were a dozen girls merrily kicking a football across the field together rather than a group made up primarily of boys.
It’s worth noting that the above observations are purely from my experiences and every school and child is different. But, and I think it’s an important but, when it became time for me to decide on my own daughters’ futures, I needed more than just my gut feeling to decide whether or not single-sex education was the right choice for them. Despite all the benefits I’d seen first-hand, I wanted it in black and white that girls’ only education was likely to be a good choice for them. It didn’t take long for me to discover a raft of literature that almost universally showed that girls in girls’ only education outperformed their peers in co-ed environments when all other factors (socioeconomic, geographical location and so on) were taken into account. (1)
Not only that, they were also far more likely to pursue careers in areas that have been traditionally dominated by men. One study found that girls at single-sex schools were 85% more likely to take advanced mathematics than girls in co-ed schools, 79% more likely to study chemistry, 68% more likely to take intermediate mathematics, and 47% more likely to study physics (2). I have no particular dreams of my daughters pursuing studies in these areas, but I do feel strongly that they shouldn’t be impeded in any pursuit that they choose for themselves. The benefits of single-sex education for boys is a lot less clear and that may be a factor in why a large number of boys-only schools have chosen to become co-ed in recent years.
But what about the ‘real world’ where girls and boys have to coexist? Are girls at girls’ only schools at a disadvantage? I would argue that they’re not. Whilst they may not mix with boys on a daily basis, single-sex schools offer opportunities for girls and boys to learn together when and where appropriate – this may be in mixed teams at maths, science or chess competitions. Furthermore, they have more opportunities to take on leadership roles than their peers in co-ed settings.
I truly believe that girls’ only education proves beneficial to the vast majority of the girls that come through our school gates. However, every child is unique and as a parent it is important to consider the needs of your child. I asked both my daughters whether they wanted to attend a girls’ only school before enrolling them. My eldest had attended our local co-ed infant school whilst my youngest was in a co-ed nursery. Both were extremely eager to join a girls’ only school and are having a wonderful time. I believe that the absence of boys gives my girls space to develop a strong sense of themselves and their values without the pressure of gender stereotypes. Girls schools were established to try and offer girls the educational opportunities that had long been afforded to boys and I believe that they still have an important role to play in further enhancing opportunities for women today.
St Catherine’s Prep extend a warm welcome to parents who would like to see what this actually looks like here at St Catherine’s, Bramley with regular Open Mornings. www.stcatherines.info