A STUDY of women who attended American all-girls' schools has concluded that they were better prepared for college and careers than their co-educational counterparts, and outperformed men in standardised tests.
Eighty-five per cent of the 4,000 girls' school graduates surveyed by the Goodman education research firm rated their experiences highly, and said they had been encouraged to take leadership roles. Eighty-four per cent said they would urge their daughters to attend an all-girls' school.
The findings follow a decade of growth for girls' schools, which include private, parochial and a handful of state institutions. Twenty-seven all girls' schools have opened since 1991, and enrolment in the 91 members of the National Coalition of Girls' Schools has increased by more than 15 per cent.
That is a dramatic reversal of the steep decline that started in the 1970s, when many boys' schools began opening their doors to girls in response to demands for co-education, and many girls' schools closed or began admitting boys.
"Ten or 15 years into that experience, a lot of educators and researchers started taking a hard look at whether being in the same classroom meant getting the same education," says Whitney Ransome, co-executive director of the girls' school coalition. "And some of that research found that they weren't."
The debate intensified with the release of a 1992 report called How Schools Shortchange Girls by the American Association of University Women.
It said that girls were overlooked in the classroom and trailed boys in mathematics and computer science. Teachers asked boys for answers 80 per cent more often than they called on girls, the report found, while 18 per cent of girls ho studied physics and calculus planned to major in science or engineering at university, compared with 64 per cent of boys.
A follow-up report, Separated by Sex, was less conclusive about the benefits of single-sex education. But it made clear that the gap between the sexes in technology, at least, continues.
In 1998, the last year for which the figures are available, girls comprised only 17 per cent of high-school pupils who took the college-placement exam in computer science, while women accounted for only 12 per cent of all engineering PhDs and 22 per cent of working scientists and engineers.
The newly-released study, Achievement, Leadership and Success conducted for the coalition, found that pupils in all-girls' schools were more likely to choose to study maths and science.
"It's an empowering environment where using your mind is what gets valued, not what you wear or how you look," Ms Ransome said.
"I see it as a training ground, a time in one's life where you really get a firm understanding of who you are. You develop a series of competencies and self-confidence and then go out into the world with shoulders high and a clarity about your own beliefs, your own talents, that allow you to really find your place in the world."
In fact, a smaller number of the alumnae polled - though still a majority - agreed that girls' schools prepared them adequately for the "real world", though almost 40 per cent said they were less prepared to interact academically or socially with men compared with graduates of co-ed schools.
To that, Ms Ransome responded: "No one is saying that the whole world needs to be divided according to gender, but rather we need to make sure that in this era of educational reform, we don't overlook options that have proved to have value."