Why do girls achieve sporting success in single-sex education?

I read with interest, an article in The Telegraph last week following the GSA Conference which suggested that girls perform better in sport in girls-only schools. The article, which reported on the Head of Headington School in Oxford’s comments, suggested that this was because there were no boys to impress.

This sparked an interesting discussion in the Ipswich High School for Girls PE Department and, while the general consensus was that we agreed that girls do perform better in a girls’ school, we did disagree with the article on why.

All of the staff in our Department have worked in co-educational schools and have experience of the independent and state education sectors. In our experience, the presence of boys in schools brings about a competitive atmosphere and lots of ‘sporting chat!’. Whilst a handful of confident girls will cope with this, it can often cause an intimidating environment where many (both boys and girls) can find it daunting to succeed.

In a girls’ school, our pupils are still competitive but are in general more empathetic and supportive towards their peers. This creates a sporting environment that enables confidence to develop and ultimately leads to higher participation levels and sustained involvement in sport in the long term. In an independent research study, Key Stage 4 girls stated that they would prefer to be in a single-sex PE class because they felt uncomfortable around boys, found them judgemental and too competitive. This corresponds with the literature produced by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (2011), where they reported that many girls feel uncomfortable and self-conscious in PE and even more so in front of boys.

One thing that is clear to me is that girls don’t need boys in their PE class to learn how to be competitive. Our sporting success at Ipswich High School (the only girls’ school in Suffolk) is a testament to this. Eight of our girls have just been selected to be involved in the prestigious Suffolk Netball Performance Academy, our Under 16 netball squad are County Champions, our hockey teams are performing fantastically well against local competition and our athletics, swimming, equestrian, rounders teams (and many more) all compete to an extremely high standard.

In my view, sport can (and should) be both competitive and inclusive and being in a girls’ school allows us to strike this balance perfectly.


Jane Fison, Director of Sport, Ipswich High School for Girls

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