Girls don’t need boys in order to be confident

‘Boys will be boys’ I suppose, but it would be so very good if Richard Cairns resisted reverting to playground bullying in his comments about single sex education. It is very healthy, at the start of a new year, to be reminded that some long-standing battles are not yet won. And Richard Cairns’ latest claims about single-sex schools, are a most salutary and timely new year reminder, that there are prejudices still to overcome.

We might have watched last autumn’s Suffragette film with a kind of sick fascination – how could it be that less than 100 years ago, women and girls in this country were being dismissed with such casual sexism, and were having to fight so hard not to be patronised- but Cairns’ piece reminds us of how pervasive, insidious and dangerous this kind of prejudiced thinking still is.

Girls must be in a class with boys, he argues, if they are “to learn to socialise with the opposite sex”. Girls must be in a co-ed environment if they are to “meaningfully converse and communicate with male colleagues”. Girls must be educated with boys if they are to be really kind – (apparently, kindness is hard to come by in girls’ schools – we’re all too busy being emotionally intense to care about each other). And astonishingly, (in the face of exhaustive and wide-ranging evidence to the contrary), Cairns also insists that girls do no better academically in single sex schools.

It’s all so breathtakingly silly that it almost doesn’t need a response – and I suspect Richard Cairns, who is an excellent head, running an excellent school, doesn’t quite mean all that his article implies here. (I wonder whether he needed more socialising lessons when he was at school?)

Of course, girls don’t need boys to be confident, articulate, engaging and compelling in social situations or in class, or in the workplace. I have rarely come across such naturally communicative and engaged young women as my sixth form – and that is the case as much in the outside world as within school.

Wimbledon High School girls win national science competitions, design solar briefcases at international conferences, represent the UK at Scout Jamborees in Japan, perform in the circus, run lessons in local schools, sail in the Junior Olympic squad, write for the national press, sing on a national stage, win debates, perform in plays and exhibit their artwork across the country.

They compete in this country and abroad in most sports you can think of. They achieve gold Duke of Edinburgh awards, take World Challenge trips, run the school TV station: to suggest that they are somehow disadvantaged without boys or that they will be cowed by men in later life because they don’t sit next to them now in physics lessons is to patronise them and all others like them at a Nineteenth Century level.

Cairns also seems to forget (or to deliberately ignore) a social-media driven teenage world, where the idea that girls are somehow remote from boys feels frankly, impossibly outdated. No teenage girl is ever more than one click away from a whole host of male ‘friends’ who want to communicate – it seems to me, twenty-four seven.

Far from not coming across boys in their lives, it is surely increasingly important to carve out some time for girls away from that kind of social pressure.

I wish, for just one day, Richard would come to Wimbledon High School or any of the brilliant maintained and independent girls’ schools in the country for that matter, to see for himself the blue-stockinged, shy, academically-blinkered creatures he imagines work here.

Our bright, lively, robust, warm-hearted students would take great pleasure in refuting (with great cordiality and generosity), Richard’s position.

In my school, as in so many others, our girls think for themselves, argue their case, think intricately, analyse with subtlety, find solutions to problems, cope with adversity, stand up for what they believe in, challenge preconceptions, look after each other and have a great deal of fun along the way.

Being educated properly was a worthy battle for girls to fight 150 years ago. It seems it still is.


Jane Lunnon, Head, Wimbledon High School GDST


Additional Heads’ Blogs on this topic:

Paul Mitchell, Cobham Hall – Cairns’ Comments

Caroline Jordan, Headington School – Still Fighting

Kirsty von Malaise, Norwich High School – There is still a place for single-sex schools, Richard Cairns

Isabel Tobias, RedMaids’ School – Headmistress’ Blog

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