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The school that made me glad to be a girl

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28 Jun 2006
Evening Standard

A NEW international survey of single-sex schools suggests that they do not necessarily produce better results than mixed schools.

But, as the proud product of Harrow County Grammar School for Girls and a single-sex Cambridge college (Newnham), I beg to differ.

Of course, if as a schoolgirl you had offered me the chance to go to school alongside boys, I would have bitten your hand off in my eagerness. And the most common argument for coeducation is that it fosters healthy relationships between men and women.

But education is about more than your relationships with the opposite sex.

And there is plenty of evidence in Britain that girls in single-sex schools outperform not just boys, but girls in co-ed schools too. In particular, they perform better in traditionally "male" subjects such as maths.

Maybe the absence of boys means there is less subliminal pressure to conform to a "feminine" stereotype. And in today's hyper-sexualised "raunch" culture, school can provide a respite from the unremitting pressure on young women to win male approval.

The most sparkling, superconfident black girls I ever met were the undergraduates at Spelman College - an all-female black college in Atlanta, Georgia.

And the all-female hierarchy at Newnham made me very comfortable with women running things.

Is it a coincidence that, with the decline in all-female schools and colleges, there has emerged a generation of young women who shy away from feminism?

Single-sex girls' schools have always been popular with parents.

The case for single-sex boys' schools is made less often. But there is increasing evidence that girls and boys learn differently and that single-sex schools (or single-sex classes in coeducational schools) can focus on meeting boys' needs better.

Younger boys, especially, do not sit still as contentedly as girls.

And I have visited mixed comprehensives where they have driven up boys' results by teaching them separately. Maybe it was because the boys decided they were in competition with the girls and rose to the challenge.

Whatever it was, it worked. As a single parent, I chose to send my son to a single-sex school because at this stage in his life, I wanted him to be exposed to male authority figures and role models.

I have never regretted going to an all-girls' school. A lifetime spent in professions dominated by men has taught me more about them than I ever needed to know.

But Harrow County Grammar School taught me to be glad to be a girl. And I still am.

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