17 February 2021
Much has been written in the press in the last few days about the value of girls’ schools in the modern world. As the Head of a girls’ school, and the product of one as well, I thought I would share my perspective with you.
Girls’ schools have at their heart a passionate commitment to empowering young women and to setting them free from gender stereotype. I am proud to lead a school where girls tell me, time and again, that they feel able to be themselves. This does not mean that they lead a sheltered or artificially sequestered existence, but rather that they are able to explore and define their identity, and express themselves fully and freely while at school. As the parents of girls, we want them to grow up to be confident in themselves, not because of what they look like, but because of what they know they are capable of. Adolescence can be a painful and awkward time, and I recognise that a degree of self-consciousness is inevitable in any environment, but I love the fact that our students feel just as comfortable to be seen in their PE leggings, red faced and warm from a run or a work-out, or to speak in Assembly about the innovative engineering project that they have developed, to deliver the Address to the Haggis at a Burns Supper or to enjoy themselves at a ‘Social’ with their friends, both male and female. I love the high level of engagement in sport and physical activity that we see in girls’ schools, right up to the final years at school. At St George’s not only will virtually all of Primary 6 and Primary 7 be playing in a school hockey team on a Saturday morning, but at the upper end, we can put out 1st to 5th elevens; the girls are still turning out to play because they love it, but for those who would rather leave team sports behind, we can ensure that they leave school with really positive habits around sport and physical activity. This is so important to women’s mental and physical wellbeing in later life and yet another way in which girls’ schools can set their students onto a winning track as they prepare to take on the world in adulthood.
Girls and boys need opportunities to challenge themselves, to take risks, and sometimes to fail. I believe that as adolescents they are most likely to embrace these opportunities when freed from the additional pressure of scrutiny and judgement of the opposite sex, whether perceived or real. Girls can stretch and challenge themselves in leadership roles within the student community, as prefects, mentors to younger students, through running the Model United Nations at school, or MedSoc. If they want to join the Combine Cadet Force, or Young Engineers, they know they can do so without anyone telling them that those activities are for the boys. In a girls’ school the Leader of the Orchestra will always be a girl, as will the Editor of any student-led publication, the Chair of Debating Society or the lead in the school play.
We can focus on bringing before our students inspiring and engaging female role models, who reveal to them, through their own life stories, pathways and approaches to living and working which they might not otherwise encounter. This does not mean, of course, that we discount the male perspective on life, but the point is that we are free to surround our girls with powerful messages about different ways to be strong, compassionate, creative, inspiring women. Every year our alumnae come back to share their experiences of university, after their first few months studying courses which include Law, Pharmacology, History, Engineering, Modern Languages, Business and Economics, Physics, English Literature, Archaeology and Anthropology, Medicine, PPE, Dentistry, International Relations, Computing, Fine Art, Game Design, Nursing and Mathematics. Far from being cowed by their taste of the ‘real’ ie co-ed world, they have embraced all that university has to offer, but also speak with affection and pride of their time at school, and with gratitude for the opportunities, support and fun that they had during their time here. School has equipped them to lead their lives with confidence, and to respond to the challenges they will doubtless face with resilience and humanity. Ambitious, passionate, articulate and funny, they are friends, leaders and independent thinkers who feel empowered to write their own stories. They give me hope for the world that will be theirs.
Mrs Alex Hems, Head, St George’s School for Girls, Edinburgh