Girls-only education is shaping the future

19th August 2005 at 01:00
It may still be a male-dominated world, but women role models help female students believe they can achieve, writes Clarissa Farr.

In 1928, writing about the absence of women from recorded history, Virginia Woolf expressed the view that "by no possible means could women, with nothing but brains and character at their command, take part in any one of the great movements which, brought together, constitute the historian's view of the past".

Set against this perspective, the findings of the survey Women's Empowerment: Measuring the Global Gender Gap, published in May by the World Economic Forum, present a stark contrast.

Of 58 countries, the UK now has the 8th best record in closing the gap between the fortunes of men and women, with particular reference to economic status, political empowerment, health and education. The reason for this, the study concludes, is the emphasis we place on the education of girls at secondary and higher level.

Less than 200 years ago, few people thought that girls were capable of benefiting from formal education or, if they were, that there was any point in their receiving it. The waste of talent and frustration of instinct that lie behind the silent history of women is captured by Ms Woolf as a powerful image of madness in the same essay: "Any woman born with a great gift (for writing) in the 16th century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself or ended her days in a lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at."

Nowadays, we hear more and more about the outstanding achievements of girls in all types of school. We have seen The First Women Award which honours female achievements. And, according to unpublished Department for Education and Skills data, girls outperform boys at A-level not only in girls'

schools but in mixed schools as well.

The recent Independent Schools' Council census of patterns in independent education, however, confirms that a girl is most likely to gain a place at university if she takes A-levels in a girls' school. Why is it that girls'

schools, the founding institutions of all formal education for women, are still so successful in preparing girls academically and socially for a modern, mixed society?

The most revealing answers come from the students themselves. In a recent survey of its alumnae, the Girls' Schools Association asked several hundred women, aged from 20 to 90, what they felt they had gained from their schooling.

The answers were unequivocal: the opportunity to pursue all areas of the curriculum without pressure or prejudice; the encouragement to develop an inner confidence and self-belief; the certainty that no door need be closed to them; and the enrichment of friendships that have lasted, in many cases, for life.

Are these women who have grown up shy or contemptuous of the opposite sex and unable to form healthy adult relationships? Judging by the number of happily-married mothers and grandmothers among them, not so.

Perhaps the most important silent lesson of the girls' schools today, and the one which gives graduates the confidence to close the gender gap in what is still a male-dominated world, is the acceptance that girls, while properly respectful of the masculine viewpoint, do not need male approval to validate their decisions.

In a girls' school, where women hold positions of responsibility as a matter of course, it does not occur to a pupil that her views might need to be checked against those of a male authority. A father at my (girls-only) school, himself a vociferous advocate of single-sex education, recently told me, with undisguised distaste, about the daughter of a friend who had just taken up the violin and whose teenage boyfriend had been " very supportive".

How had this lovely, independent girl dwindled into a mere girlfriend, dependent on the approval of Eliot's "young man carbuncular"?

The growing independence of women, intellectual, social and financial, though approved of in theory, is still regarded with unspoken suspicion.

When women organise themselves to make a statement, assert a view, when they are gloriously themselves, it is only a short time before they are labelled "strident", "aggressive", "shrill" or, worst of all, "unfeminine".

There is apparently something repugnant about the woman who says: "I am confident in myself, I respect you, but I do not need you to agree with me." Isn't it time we got over this?

Young women growing up in girls' schools today are full of confidence, humour and spirit. They are also as healthily interested in (and interesting to) the opposite sex as young women ever were. Many of them are destined to fall in love, marry and become mothers, as did the generations before them.

But the difference is that steadily and inexorably, they are, in their own ways and with their own words, through politics, academia and all walks of public life, writing themselves into the pages of history. In another hundred years it will not be possible to look back and say women played no part in great events.

And of all the changes in society that will have contributed to that enrichment, the emergence, growth and continued health of girls' schools will be among the most celebrated and significant.

Clarissa Farr is president of the Girls' Schools Association and principal of Queenswood school, Hertfordshire

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