There should be more public girls’ schools — The Adelaide Advertiser reports views of leading principals

29 August 2016

Read the article published in The Adelaide Advertiser on 27 August 2016 by Tim Williams arguing that South Australia needs more public girls’ schools.

LEADING principals are calling for more girls-only public schools so girls have access to single sex education regardless of where they live or their families’ financial means. The school leaders say it must be a viable option for all parents to give their daughters the advantages of single sex education — greater confidence, leadership opportunities and the academic benefits of teaching styles tailored to girls. They are also urging parents and educators to combat gender stereotypes and stop fostering the “princess mindset” that results in girls expecting others to solve their problems for them.

Mitcham Girls High and the all-girls campus of Roma Mitchell Secondary at Gepps Cross are the only two public girls schools in the state. There are no all-boys public schools.

Mitcham principal Antoinette Jones said students travelled from as far as Victor Harbor and Gawler to the unzoned school and she was certain there was untapped demand from parents who were put off by long travel distances and costs. Ms Jones said ideally there would be public girls schools in the north, south, east and west of Adelaide as well as a central country location. “Their self-esteem increases the moment they step into the school,” she said. “The growth in NAPLAN results is amazing once they come to us.”

Enrolments at Mitcham Girls grew from 430 when Ms Jones came to the Kingswood school in 2003 to a peak of more than 600 in 2010. This year there are 550 with 570 expected next year. Ms Jones also said primary schools should separate girls and boys for maths classes in upper year levels because many girls started high school saying they “hate” the subject. “If they came to us with a better disposition to mathematics it wouldn’t take us two or three months to turn them around,” she said.

New Loreto College principal Dr Nicole Archard is an academic expert in female education whose research has indicated the need for explicit teaching about gender stereotypes and workplace inequities. “We don’t have equity in a co-ed world yet, but until we do there will be a strong need for (all-girls) education,” she said.

Dr Archard, who leads one of the most expensive Catholic schools in SA, said she did not favour simplistic debates pitting public against private or single sex versus co-ed schooling, but it should be a realistic option for all families. She said adults must fight the “princess mindset” by resisting the temptation to “rescue” girls and instead allow them to take risks in their studies and learn to bounce back from failure.

Dr Archard, who will deliver a free public lecture on raising girls at Loreto on Tuesday night, said girls schools were best placed to teach gender equity issues, provide role models and instil the belief girls can have successful careers in non-traditional areas like the sciences. “You can’t be what you can’t see. You also can’t be what you can’t believe,” she said.

Roma Mitchell Secondary girls campus has 360 students, up from 320 when it opened in 2011, and could take 400. Principal Sandy Richardson said there was likely unmet demand in other parts of Adelaide. “If there was an all-girls option local to where they would be, I can see families would choose that if that’s what they wanted,” she said.

In April, an Advertiser analysis of 2015 NAPLAN literacy and numeracy testing results showed high-fee private girls schools Wilderness, Saint Peter’s Girls, Walford and Seymour were all top performers.

Alliance of Girls Schools Australasia executive officer Loren Bridge said there should be more public girls schools but SA was not alone in lacking them as Queensland, Western Australia and the Northen Territory had none and Tasmania just one.

Ms Bridge pointed to Melbourne University research, published this month, as evidence of the need for all-girls schooling when Australia was “going backwards” in international comparisons of gender equity such as pay levels and corporate and political representation. The landmark study found in most schools boys liked and were more confident about maths and science than girls, and the gap grew as children got older. The exception was girls in single sex schools, who were more likely to enjoy and feel as confident about STEM subjects as boys in single sex schools.

Education Minister Susan Close said both Mitcham and Roma Mitchell had capacity for more students but she would seek advice on the issue of untapped demand for girls schooling. Education Department executive director for school and preschool improvement Anne Millard said enrolment data indicated the demand was not there. “If this changed, the department would explore options to expand the existing schools,” she said. “Some schools offer the flexibility to teach subjects to male and female students separately if they feel this will benefit their learning”.

Mitcham and Roma Mitchell are served by Adelaide Metro school bus routes as well as regular public transport.

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