Talking points for girls’ schools

Why girls’ schools are more relevant today than ever

The proponents of co-education argue that our world, and specifically our workplaces, are mixed gender and therefore our schools too should be mixed gender. Unfortunately, the reality for women is that our world and workplaces, while mixed gender, are a long way from being gender-equal. The World Economic Forum (2017) ranked Australia 35 on its gender equality index, below New Zealand (9), Canada (16), Nicaragua (6) and Cuba (25). It also estimated that the workplace gender gap will not close for 217 years — that’s not until the year 2234. Workplace inequality, coupled with uncertainty about the future of work and the skills needed for career and life success, means that we need to ensure our girls reach their potential and are prepared for the world after school.

Research into gender bias shows that girls as young as six years old perceive boys to be much smarter them, and that by the age of three children are well on their way to learning gender stereotypes. According to an OECD study girls’ confidence in maths and science lags severely behind boys and there’s a significant difference between girls’ and boys’ subject choices with fewer girls participating in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Once in the workplace, women are not represented equally in senior leadership roles; they earn on average 16 per cent less than their male counterparts; and are impacted more by childcare responsibilities and caring for aged parents.

One of the major hurdles to boosting the number of women in senior leadership positions and STEM careers is giving girls the motivation, self-belief and resilience to disrupt gender bias. This is happening in girls’ schools where girls are more likely to reject gender stereotypes and are bucking the trend when it comes to studying STEM subjects. Girls’ schools are sending their students on to study business, law and STEM degrees in record numbers — it is these areas that are touted as the lifeblood of the emerging knowledge-based industries and jobs of the future.

Studies have shown that a girl’s environment plays an important role in explaining why she chooses to get involved and compete at school. Girls from single-sex schools are more assertive, willing to take risks, ask questions, make mistakes, and participate at higher levels in sport and physical education — skills that are advantageous for leadership and life success.

Vitally, girls’ schools provide a safe space for girls to learn to combat the gender bias and sexism that still exist within universities, workplaces and our broader communities — so that when girls leave school they know they are absolutely equal to their male peers and will accept nothing less.

What happens when you take boys out of the learning environment? 

In co-ed classrooms, boys can be seen to dominate discussions and monopolise teaching time, but unconscious gender biases are also often at play. Boys receive more attention from the teacher and more constructive praise and criticism than girls. In addition, girls are not encouraged to take risks and confront the challenges posed by difficult learning tasks to the same degree as boys.

Multiple studies show unequivocally that girls benefit from a learning environment free from gender stereotyping and unconscious bias. Girls are more self-assured in discussion, select more challenging subjects, take more risks with their learning, are more competitive, and achieve better academically than their co-ed counterparts. Girls will also hold every leadership position in girls’ schools from the swim team, coding club and music groups through to school, house and sporting captains. Simply put, every aspect of a girls’ school is tailored to girls and how they learn, without competition and social pressure from boys, and this is enormously empowering for girls.

In a single-sex school, girls can be themselves, feel supported, and act with confidence. As one Year 12 student put it: “You’re able to be more open … everyone has an equal chance to speak up and be heard”

And another said:  “before I came to an all-girls school I was almost lost in the classroom … now academically I get a lot more out of it”.

And on boys: “there’s plenty of opportunities to socialise with boys outside of school, we see boys everywhere, but at school, my focus is on learning”.

As for learning how to socialise with the opposite sex, there are ample opportunities for students at single-sex schools to socialise, interact, negotiate, discuss and compete with the opposite sex both during and after school. But for girls there are big advantages to an all-girls environment where they can comprehend their value and capabilities in ways that have nothing to do with how they look or society’s expectations for them. They are free to experiment and explore and can follow their ambitions without wasting a second thought on how male counterparts might perceive them.

How girls’ schools create unparalleled opportunities

Fundamentally girls do better in a single-sex setting because girls’ schools are specialists in girls. Not just in their academic care, but also in terms of their confidence and approach to challenges, risks and leadership. Every aspect of teaching and learning, every programme — academic, extracurricular and pastoral care — is tailored to meet the needs of the girls.

Both anecdotal and research-based evidence supports the idea that girls’ schools are better able to create the environment and opportunities needed for girls to succeed and develop intellectually, emotionally and physically.

Single-sex schools give girls, and boys, the opportunity to be taught in relevant ways to suit their different stages of development, interests and learning styles. Many co-ed schools try to replicate the benefits of single-sex schooling with the introduction of single-sex classes, but single-sex classes only go part of the way and don’t address many of the social agonies or the unconscious bias of a co-ed campus.

Parents choose girls’ schools for their safe, nurturing environment; for the quality of pastoral care that is designed specifically for girls; and for the excellent female role models who encourage their daughters to aim high in whichever path they choose to follow — instilling self-belief in girls, encouraging their dreams, treating them equally, and fighting back against the sexualisation of women and girls in the media and society.

As noted by Dr Nicole Archard, Principal of Loreto College Marryatville in South Australia, girls’ schools do more than just teach the curriculum:

What girls’ schools do is purposefully develop girls to understand their gender identity and to shape their self-concept, self-efficacy, and self-confidence so girls develop the knowledge and skills required to reject and overcome the gender stereotypes that attempt to define them.

A visit to any girls’ school will reveal the unparalleled opportunities provided to girls for life success and leadership both during and after their schooling and just how loudly their successes are celebrated.