Directing a female powerhouse

10th November 2000 at 00:00
Don't be put off by the jolly hockey sticks image. On the eve of the Girls' Schools' Association conference Elaine Williams is told girls' schools are now needed more than ever IT is lunchtime and Bradford girls' grammar school is disgorging pupils from its stone buildings, sprightly and dressed for sport or heading off in chattering groups for activities. The place has an air of confident industry, a feminine powerhouse anchored by Yorkshire solidity.

Lynda Warrington has

presided as head over this 850-strong grammar for the past 13 years having arrived in 1979 as head of physics. Confidence, she says, is the key to the whole show. As the years have gone by she has become more convinced that single-sex education is best for girls, allowing them to grow in confidence into their true

individual selves.

This conviction led her to take on the mantle of president of the Girls' Schools Association a year ago, when it was facing some of its greatest threats including moves by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents top public schools, to poach GSA members. Warrington has dispatched her duties with characteristic humour, calm and good manners, which clothe her steely determination to protect and promote girls' schools. As next week's GSA annual conference approaches she can feel satisfied that the association is on a more combative footing to develop single-sex education for the future.

Lynda Warrington, 52, was educated at a girls' grammar - the Kesteven and Sleaford High School for Girls in Lincolnshire - which fostered her love of science. Yorkshire became her home after she graduated in physics from Leeds University and went to teach at a Wakefield comprehensive, then on to the Queen Elizabeth grammar (for boys, also in Wakefield), before arriving at BGGS. A single-sex education helped her become a scientist and after having taught co-ed as well as single-sex in boys' and girls' schools she believes every girl would benefit from attending a girls' school.

She said: "Girls and boys approach learning and problem-solving in completely different ways. When I came here from a boys' school the differences were immediately apparent. Boys interacted more in class with their teacher, they were more demanding with questioning and more than willing to throw in red herrings to throw you off task.

"Girls tend to focus on what will make them achieve, they will ask questions, but in order to get on. When I taught co-ed you would have keen boys sitting at the front and boys sitting at the back and the girls would be in the middle. In a single-sex school, girls are free to b themselves. They are not being squeezed. They grow in confidence as people and the world becomes open to them."

Girls' schools she believes are also in a good position to help with the pressures that girls have to face in life. Although she is keen to emphasise that of the top 20 schools in the latest GCSE league tables, 17 belonged to GSA and that out of the top 10 for A-level scores eight belonged to GSA, she is aware of the pressures that girls put on themselves. GSA schools are noted, she says, for the breadth of education they provide, as well as for their academic achievements.

Bradford is typical in the astonishing range of extra-curricular activities it offers, which helps to avoid a narrow academic focus. Although she welcomes the greater breadth offered by new A-levels she fears they will have a detrimental effect by eroding that extra-curricular time. Her staff, she says, are acutely aware of the pressures on teenage girls and Bradford has its fair share of pupils with eating disorders, but the environment is also right for problems to be aired and dealt with. Warrington said: "We work with parents to come through it and the girls are very supportive of each other."

She also believes that girls' schools can play a key part in helping society develop responsible citizens by taking a strong moral lead. She said: "GSA schools are marked by their disciplined environment and we can engender in girls the confidence to withstand media and peer pressure so that they can say no to sex or taking drugs."

When therefore, earlier this year, a member of HMC suggested that as the conference now included co-ed schools in its membership, why not also include girls' schools? Warrington went on the offensive. GSA heads are acutely aware that the abolition of the Assisted Places Scheme has led to school mergers and boys' schools increasingly throwing their doors open to girls. Bradford itself regrets that its pupils will now come increasingly from the sector of society that can afford to pay the fees. But Warrington is passionately determined that if girls' schools are to survive and thrive in the current climate they need their own voice more than ever. The HMC initiative would not only have weakened the GSA voice, but jeopardised the current effective co-operation between the two membership bodies. She worked hard to see the idea off and succeeded.

She said: "Without a strong body to fight for and promote their values, girls' schools could be on the decline. They are seen as old-fashioned. Not right for modern times. But I am of the firm belief that girls need them now more than ever."

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