'In a world still predominantly patriarchal in its values, there is a strong argument for the existence of all-girls' schools'

So often people speak in disparaging terms about single-sex education, but my experience of attending an all-girls' school was an overwhelmingly positive one, writes the former mental health tsar

Natasha Devon

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I have this radical notion and it's that all human beings are different.

So often, in education (and I'm as guilty of this as anyone) we speak as though there is a type of school, or learning, or curriculum which would be beneficial to all children, when in fact that's an impossible feat.

The only thing we can do is strive to have enough flexibility, accessibility and variety within the education system so that every child can have their unique needs met (something which, at present, we are failing miserably despite the best endeavours of teachers).

I mention this because, so often I hear people speaking in disparaging terms about single-sex schools.

Just last week, an anonymous supply teacher writing for the TES described all girls' schools as "way off balance" and asserted that the evidence showing that girls tend to thrive in traditionally male-dominated subjects like science in single-sex environments was not enough to justify their existence.

Worryingly, the writer also describes at length their discomfort at being an adult male surrounded by girls; the "unpredictable" nature of his pupils and his fears that they might make an "accusation" against him.

The article plays into an ever-more common narrative – namely that single sex schools are 'unnatural' and encourage freakish behaviours whilst leaving their pupils poorly prepared for the realities of life.

In my experience, that simply isn't true and I think, in a world which is still predominantly patriarchal in its values, there is a strong argument for the existence of, in particular, all-girls' schools.

My school was unusual, in that it was (and still is) a state comprehensive, but for girls' only.

For me, the advantages of being in an all-female environment far extended the simple fact that we didn't divide subjects into those perceived to be "male" and "female" appropriate (although that was definitely the case).

If there were chairs to be stacked, rigging to be done for the school play, doors to be opened for one another, we did it. I have heard teachers in other schools display unconscious bias by saying things like "I need two big strong boys to help me move this table" but in our school we needed to be big strong girls because there were no boys around to do it for us.

I don't believe spending so much time in the company of girls growing up made my relationships with boys and men difficult. Arguably, it's because I have three brothers, but after I went on to university I had a good mixture of male and female friends, and never struggled to relate to any of them. I am now happily married and my husband and I even manage the occasional conversation.

I'm also not intimidated by men in the same way some women I know are – perhaps because when I was trying to learn I didn't have to listen to endless "bants" or be subjected to the sexual harassment a reported 59 per cent of teenage girls endure at school today.

My favourite teacher was a man (shout-out to Mr Biggins, you legend) and I'd be mortified if he for one second felt uncomfortable being around us.

Our male teachers probably were privy to a lot of conversations about period pains, cystitis and so on, but I dare say that did them good. They after all had mothers and sometimes sisters and wives.

We didn't need to have lessons on feminism at school because we existed in an environment that was naturally feminist.

I grew up in Essex, and at the time there was an unspoken consensus that women were decorative and should endure the behaviours of hero-worshipped and all-pervasive "bad boys". School was a sanctuary from and an antidote to that.

As pupils, we were made to feel as though we had choices and I certainly left school believing there was nothing I couldn't do.

Of course, single-sex education isn't for everyone. And I'm not for one second suggesting the solution to gender-based bullying in schools is to isolate boys and girls from one another, but my experience of attending an all-girls' school was an overwhelmingly positive one.

It's time to put to bed the antiquated (and homophobic) view that, in the words of a nameless person I spoke to recently, we're "all nymphos, lesbians or weirdos"*

*Just for the record, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a nympho, a lesbian or, indeed, weird. Big up the weird lesbian nymphos.

Natasha Devon is the former UK government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @_NatashaDevon

Don't miss our video to the future of girls’schools https://community.tes.com/threads/leadership-webinar-the-future-for-girls-schools-video-and-webchat.749053.

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Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK.

Find me on Twitter @_natashadevon

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