Single-sex education – let’s not miss the real point

There was a mini media storm last week about an article by Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College in Independent School Parent magazine. Not surprisingly, the headline that the article was given – ‘Girls educated in single-sex schools at a huge disadvantage’ – has not gone down too well among many of my colleagues. Much of the content – that single sex schools do not prepare girls for the world of work in particular – reflects what Richard has said in articles in the past. There was one in The Telegraph in March 2015 that was styled as a debate with Helen Fraser of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) covering much of the same ground, and using pretty much the same words.

It seems clear that Richard has very strongly held views on these issues. I too have strongly held views, in my case about the huge benefits of single-sex education for girls, but I don’t feel the need to undermine the choices made by parents who go for a co-ed environment such as the school that Richard leads. If I wanted to do so, I would struggle for empirical evidence beyond my own experience (extensive though that is) and therefore I would fall back, ultimately, on personal anecdote as Richard mostly does. Richard quotes from a piece in the US journal Science to try to add some authority to his ridiculous claims, but the one thing we do know about the research that’s out there is that none of it addresses the specific situation that faces parents making choices in the UK independent school environment. I just don’t think there’s enough evidence to support such a definitive stance either way, Richard, and personal anecdote really doesn’t do it.
But, leaving aside questions of scientific method, to my mind, there are some fundamental truths about the world, even in 2016, that Richard’s article fails to recognise.

First, the reality is that workplaces are still not ‘equal’ for women. I would not question for a moment that women are often still at a disadvantage, but I wouldn’t pin that on the type of school they come from as Richard does. The problem is very often the workplace, not the woman, and the workplace problem stems from a far wider set of social prejudices that reach back into schools. Things may be heading in the right direction but, until we ‘get there’ I strongly believe that many girls benefit from the opportunity to develop their talents in traditionally male-dominated fields that a single-sex environment provides.

Second, every single individual is different. There are differences in ‘self-confidence and networking ability’ (which Richard bizarrely sees as a particular problem for girls from single-sex schools) among boys just as there are among girls. I’ve just been reading Quiet by Susan Cain. To take up the message of that book, which is subtitled ‘The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’, what we need to work towards is a society that gets the best out of all of us, rather than forcing everyone to conform to predetermined expectations. It’s not hard to see how this could be a threatening idea for those who are suited by the traditional framework…

In fact, what we should be debating is how to encourage genuine ‘diversity’ in all areas of life. I don’t just mean diversity in terms of gender or race, of course. What we need – for all our sakes – is a place in society for the whole range of talents, attitudes, and personalities. We don’t just need to give women a chance to do exactly what men have traditionally done – we need to give everyone the chance to learn from what women bring that’s different, as part of adapting to an ever-changing world and meeting the many challenges that face us. This is precisely what single-sex schools do for girls and, I would argue for boys as well.

One day, it may well be that we are in a position where every school can be co-ed. But that day has not yet arrived and, until it does, a single-sex school is often still the best choice for parents who want to prepare their daughters for the future and – just as important – have a fulfilling and enjoyable time as they do so.


Dr Felicia Kirk, Headmistress, St Mary’s Calne


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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