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Can girls-only schools really prepare you for real life?

As the head of a top college says single-sex education doesn’t prepare teenage girls for the workplace, four women (and a man) reveal what it was like for them

Published 07/01/2016

With the nuns at Lark Hill (front row, second from right)
With the nuns at Lark Hill (front row, second from right)
A young Frances Burscough in her school uniform
Females only: the Immaculate Conception Dormitory at Lark Hill
Helen Carson as a teenage punk in her younger days

Same-sex education was once lauded by the experts as the best way to provide a focused, distraction free environment for learning.

But the head of one of England's most renowned co-educational private schools has hit out at single-sex education for girls.

Richard Cairns of Brighton College hit the headlines when he argued that while all-girl schools may provide their pupils with a top grade education, they leave young women woefully unprepared to enter the workplace.

Mr Cairns said a single-sex education might leave girls with plenty of qualifications, but these are moot if women aren't able to converse with their male colleagues when they enter the jobs market.

Experts, on the other hand, point out the educational value of all-girl schools which often produce top grades. They say that those pupils are more likely to select the desirable maths and science subjects, which traditionally were dominated by men.

However, Mr Cairns said that these ideas are outdated and girls are still at a disadvantage if not able to socialise comfortably with their male counterparts.

Three writers give their verdict on their single-sex schooldays and we also talk to two local celebrities about their lives in the classrooms without the distraction of boys.

Frances Burscough: I have to agree - albeit reluctantly - with the head of Brighton College, who claimed that single sex schools damage a child's social development. The reason for my reluctance is that my parents made all sorts of sacrifices to send me and my seven siblings to single sex schools. They had an old-fashioned attitude to education and didn't like the concept of the 'secondary-modern' comprehensive schools of the 1970s one bit.

Both my mum and my dad had gone to strict Catholic grammar schools and they saw it as a privilege for us to carry on that family tradition. So they scrimped and saved every penny they earned so that the boys in my family could go to Preston Catholic College - an all-boys school run by Jesuit priests, while the girls (including me) went to Lark Hill Convent - a girls' grammar school run by nuns from the Faithful Companions of Jesus order. As far as education was concerned, both schools were second to none. As well as the arts and sciences, modern languages and the Classics were vitally important and so for a time we were all fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and Latin. The only problem was that none of us left school knowing how to talk to the opposite sex in any language.

At my school in particular, the opposite sex never darkened the doors. All the pupils and all the staff were female. For many years, the only males that ever entered the building were Catholic priests, so it's safe to say this resulted in a very narrow-minded approach to the world at large. Sure, we thrived in all manner of enlightening subjects, but social interaction certainly wasn't one of them.

From the age of four until the age of 16, I rarely spoke to any boys, except my own brothers and occasionally their friends if they came round to play in the holidays. But they, too, were all from a single-sex school, so they were about as articulate and expressive with us as we were with them.

I left school feeling embarrassed and awkward in male company. I hadn't a clue how to strike up a conversation and, to be honest, all these years later, I still struggle at small talk.

My only saving grace was that I was a tom-boy, so I was naturally interested in many of the same things as boys. I loved gangster movies and war films, I loved climbing trees and running amok in nature, going fishing, camping out under the stars and playing cards, snooker and darts. I tagged along with my brothers and wanted to be like them, but I didn't have a clue how to engage in conversation.

This was just one aspect of the single-sex experience that I have always felt put me at a disadvantage.

Another is that you simply don't understand a male point of view because you are never offered it as an alternative.

You can't debate equally or reasonably, because you never have done that before in all your formative years. Whereas someone with a balanced co-ed background is used to hearing all viewpoints, you are not.

Discussions with men can become confrontational very quickly because your mind cannot compute their way of thinking. It took me years to get over this hurdle.

Relationships with the opposite sex failed as a result because I struggled to make myself understood or to understand them.

It is definitely better with this generation.

Both my sons went to a boys grammar school but they were involved in lots of activities, clubs and social events with the neighbouring girls' school, as well as living most of their lives with a single mother, so they have no problem whatsoever communicating with girls themselves.

However, if I had ever had a daughter I'd certainly think twice before sending her to a single sex school."

Helen Carson: Having been a pupil at an all-girls secondary school in Belfast for me was a double-edged sword.

I was sent to Ashfield Girls’ High School at the tail end of the Seventies because my sister was there.

As a nervous first year, I have to admit some of the girls at my school scared the life out of me, so the fact there were no boys was a relief.

With hindsight I can see that many of the girls at my school acted in an incredibly macho way. They were hard women who would not hesitate to throw a punch ... and they did.

Thankfully, though, they were in the minority. The girls were a mix of well-mannered working class kids who just wanted to get the most out of school.

However, the fact that there were no boys was crucial to the mindset of some of my classmates who ruthlessly milked the fact they had brothers and ‘knew boys’.

This was a form of social cachet to be wielded in a bullying fashion — usually by girls who had no interest in learning. This situation would not have existed in a co-ed. 

I recall a class discussion one day with a teacher when someone asked why the school wasn’t mixed. The response was ‘because there would be a wee girl and wee fella in each corner of the classroom snogging’.

So at the tender age of 13, we had all been classed as morally reprehensible and unable to control ourselves. I wonder how such dreadful social stereotyping would be interpreted in the classroom today?

Nowadays we know that girls tend to perform better academically than boys sooner, and in some ways I am glad my school was single sex. I found my own set of girls who turned into lifelong friends.

Having attended a mixed primary school, I found the idea of gender segregation insulting — even when I was 12. My primary school friends were both boys and girls, so to separate us for educational reasons at secondary level has a unpleasant subtext, reinforcing the idea that all teens are irresponsible.

Meanwhile, this unhealthy form of social control maintains the gender gap in our society where differences are made between boys and girls, growing up with them into adulthood.  This segregation also deprives many children of a natural opportunity to acquire valuable social and communication skills which are as important as passing exams, and crucial to future success in the workplace.

What happens in those formative teenage years as children make the transition to adulthood stays with you for the rest of your life. Social behaviour and responses are established at this stage in life and have far-reaching consequences.

Now as a mother to a 15-year-old son who attends Ashfield Boys’ School, I would agree with Brighton headmaster Richard Cairns’ definition of hierarchy in boys and girls schools. He says in an all-boy environment the sports stars form the top strata in terms of status, while girls’ schools suffer a degree of emotional intensity which can lead to bullying. The latter scenario was definitely played out in my school days.

The old fashioned battle of the sexes still exists and I cringe every time I hear a boy use the terms ‘cry like a girl’ or ‘stupid woman’.

There is a lot of work still to be done and it starts in the classroom.”

Leesa Harker (37) is a playwright best known for 50 Shades of Red, White and Blue. She lives in Belfast with her daughters Lola (7) and Lexie (5). She says:

I went to the Girls’ Model School in Belfast because, although I was really smart in primary school, I had a real shock when I failed my 11-plus. I had had my heart set on going to Belfast High so when it came to picking a different school, I just went where all my friends were. That was the only criteria for me at that point — I certainly didn’t pick an all girls school on purpose.

I hung around with girls and boys outside of school anyway so I certainly wasn’t alienated from the opposite sex. Weighing things up, it’s probably better to have mixed education just because that’s what it’s like when you go to work or university.

In saying that you don’t have any nonsense about who fancies who at an all girls’ school. On the other hand they can be very bitchy and there was a lot of bullying when I was at school. That might not have been the case if there were boys in the class.

When it comes to sending my children Lexie and Lola to secondary education, it will come down to the quality of the school, not if it is single sex or mixed. I know they’ll only be 10 or 11 at the time, but I’ll give them all the information and let them make their own decisions.”

Kirstie McMurray (41) hosts the breakfast show on Downtown Radio. She lives in Bangor with her fiance Andy Brisbane and has two children, Connor (16) and Katie (14). She says:

I went to an all girls’ school and I’m better at talking to men than I am to women — most of my co-hosts on the radio have been men.

I attended Glenlola Collegiate in Bangor for the full seven years. I went there because I passed my 11-plus and it was really the only grammar school available to me — that it was single sex had nothing to do with it.

For me personally I think it was a good thing. I dread to think what I would have been like at a co-ed school. There would have been far too many distractions if there had been boys there, too. I had gone to a mixed primary school, as most people do, until the age of 11 but I got used to being at a girls’ school. The boys’ grammar school was very close to us and we would hang around with the boys from it after classes. In general, there will usually be male figures in anyone’s family circle, so it is not as if girls will never speak to a man while growing up.

I sent my daughter to the same school, but it was more about the fact that I knew it was a great school and Katie would do well at it. I sent Connor to a mixed school because again I thought that would be a good fit for him. Their education is about what school is best for them and it doesn’t matter if it is co-ed or not.”

Henry McDonald: For many Malachians less familiar with the opposite sex, the sniggering and nervous giggling began even before the girls crossed the quadrangle past the Marian grotto in the direction of the sixth-form centre, or the drama hall.

And, better still, if it happened to be Protestant girls visiting the college for debates, or plays, the school-boyish, Beavis and Butthead-style verbal antics would reach a crescendo.

Because, for some of my fellow pupils at 36 Antrim Road, an encounter with a Prod-in-a-skirt was even more exotic than a schoolday afternoon spent with just a human female.

Being a wannabe Belfast Bohemian from the city centre, close to bars like The Pound and a punk in the late-1970s, brought me into regular contact with the opposite sex and, even by age 14, I had already kissed a few girls and quite liked it. But for some of my fellow St Malachy’s students, they were not so lucky, which was why there was always an atmosphere of giddy excitement when the girls schools around Belfast (especially from the likes of Methody, Victoria College, or BRA) came calling to us after lessons were over at 3.45pm for extra curricular cultural events ... no sniggering there at the back, by the way.

To St Malachy’s credit, they did, during the lower and upper sixth form years, challenge us as young adult men to confront the way the male-dominated world mistreated women.

I recall, in particular, two  external speakers — one man and one woman — who came to the college to discuss and debate gender stereotypes, sexism and male power.

They also came from a secular, rather than religious, organisation — and what they had to say to me left a lasting impression.

Yet when an English schoolteacher tells the Daily Mail that girls are worse off going to same-sex schools, there are generations of former schoolboys across Northern Ireland who will cry out: “We know exactly what you mean.”

In fact, those who attended single-sex/all-boys’ schools here can claim to have been doubly disadvantaged.

Not only could they spend up to seven of their most formative years at a school where the only women they would see were teachers (and, in our case, the odd nun or two), they would also rarely if ever come across a girl from the opposite religious persuasion. It used to be accepted wisdom that, actually, girls did better in single-sex schools, as opposed to mixing with unruly boys. Yet, at the same time, educationalists told us that when boys worked alongside girls in the classroom, the former’s grades and performances were better than their male counterparts in single-sex schools.

My two daughters, one now at Trinity College Dublin, attended a mixed-sex school in south Belfast, where integration and co-operation between boys and girls is rooted in equality and mutual respect.

Mixed-sex schools — even in a highly secularised school and college system — sometimes don’t provide all the answers to the gender gap where girls outperform boys.

The wife of a dear friend of mine, who taught in a secondary-level college in New York City a few years ago, had a more complex, partially depressing, experience teaching there.

She reported that the divide between the pupils who wanted to learn and those who wanted to disrupt lessons to the detriment of their fellow students broke down on ethnic grounds, rather than gender.

Although, in the main, it was little groups of young men who were the disturbers of the peace and who picked on other young men that were desperately keen to get an education. Nonetheless, in the Northern Ireland context, with our current education minister determined to close and merge schools

(except Irish language ones, it seems), there appears to be a practical as well an educational imperative why our entire school system should be single sex.

And while it would be counter-productive to enforce, or railroad, religious-based schools into a fully religiously integrated system, at the very least Catholic and non-Catholic state schools should be given more incentive and encouragement to share  facilities, from sports halls, pitches, drama halls and even joint sixth form centres.

The days of only seeing the opposite sex, or the opposite religion, cross your school quadrangle once or twice a year between 3.45 and 5pm should be a thing of the past.

Belfast Telegraph

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