It is a truth universally acknowledged that, in this small university town, conversational introductions follow something of a pre-ordained trajectory. Tentative compliments paid to your new acquaintance’s wardrobe are usually followed up with a blanket statement about the weather, after which you are forced to display an entirely perfunctory interest in said acquaintance’s choice of degree programme – fingers crossed it’s not philosophy. All this said and done, you look around sheepishly, desperately wanting but somehow unable to avoid the inevitable denouement of this line of questioning. Yet, sapped of all further inspiration, you give in to the overwhelming impulse to, rather despondently, ask them where they went to school. Talk about a rhetorical cliché.
More than one aspect of this – no doubt familiar – anecdote is troubling. Perhaps the most obvious objection is that the question is flagrantly elitist; I doubt Tarquin has ‘mutuals’ at the comp down the road, after all. But this is an objection that, while far from solved, has been addressed on many occasions. So, instead, I will raise another, less widely discussed issue: the response that my answer – an all-girls’ school – all-too-frequently elicits. In fact, I’ve come to brace myself in advance: gender of my audience aside, I will invariably be met with melodramatic exclamations, usually situated somewhere along the spectrum of sympathetic disbelief to outright derision.
Perhaps this is unsurprising. The gendered educational debate has been wagered ever since the introduction of all-girls’ schools in the nineteenth century. Originally borne out of the absence of any alternative for female students, the institutions now account for some 230 schools in the UK; their ‘take-over’ has been as substantial as it has been contentious. Correspondingly, education columns of the last decades have been saturated with anxious debate: ‘Are Single-Sex or Mixed Schools the Way Forward?’, enquires The Telegraph; ‘Mixed Blessing: do Single-Sex Schools Have a Future?’ wonders the Spectator, while The Guardian claims that, ‘Single-Sex Schools Offer No Advantages and Feed Stereotypes’.
Skip to 2023 and the long-worn debate continues to occupy something of a stalemate in the public imagination – and, perhaps counter to your expectations, this doesn’t bother me. I’m not here to lecture you on the data that fall in all-girls’ schools’ favour (although I find the evidence that, at a Girls’ School Association institution, a girl is 75% more likely to take Maths, 70% more likely to take Chemistry, and two and a half times more likely to choose Physics at A-Level, to be rather compelling).
No, while I can wax lyrical about the benefits that I personally derived from an all-girls’ education, (improved confidence, freedom from traditional stereotypes and a greater ability to focus, to name but a few), I can also say from anecdotal experience that all-girls’ schools are not for everyone. Many people quite literally ran for the hills come Sixth Form, opting for a co-educational alternative; meanwhile, several of my friends appear to have ‘come out the other side’ of co-ed systems unscathed. The physical evidence speaks for itself: the fact that one’s choice – single-sex or otherwise – is not immediately obvious in functioning society suggests that either pathway has potential benefits for different types of people.
So, that said, what I object to is not the criticism of single-sex education per se. I appreciate as much as the next person that dividing society along gendered parameters from the age of eleven is arguably not the most constructive course of action. Instead, I object to the fact that the contention all-girls’ schools receive – particularly at an everyday, conversational level – is rarely grounded in a defence of gender equality. In fact, the reality is quite the opposite.
Those of my friends who attended all-boys’ schools rarely seem to face the same treatment as me and, if they do, the arguments raised against them differ considerably. (Well-founded) accusations of exclusivity aside, Eton continues to represent the paragon of quality education, churning out more Prime Ministers than – perhaps fortunately – we care to remember. If people raise qualms about a ‘laddish’, or ‘rowdy’ culture at these schools, they are nonetheless considered places of erudition, worthy of our respect.
The picture is rather different when I consider the comments made about my all-girls’ educational experience. The stereotypes that come to mind are practically endless, and none of them are remotely complimentary.
We’ll start with a classic, the bread and butter if you will of the derivative pub critic: driven by a copious supply of oestrogen, all-girls’ schools are plagued with drama. Everyone knows after all, that, like ducks to water, a group of teenage girls will inevitably turn to a culture of bitching, cat-fighting, and hair-pulling given the opportunity. The origins of this myth are unclear, but I’d wager that our childhood diet of Disney Channel, CBBC and Nickelodeon did little to counteract the fallacy. After all, the trope of the hysterical, volatile teenage girl undeniably makes for entertaining viewing – particularly when she resorts to the undignified hand flapping and spitting frequently favoured by directors.
Sorry to burst your bubble but, just as girls’ sleepovers seldom reach the crescendo of a lingerie-clad pillow fight, all-girls’ schools rarely witness the sort of playground behaviour that popular culture would have us believe. In fact, I’d argue quite the opposite. While all teenagers inevitably argue occasionally, the absence of boys meant there was less material to ‘bitch’ about in the first place. The common room was far more inclined to accommodate heartfelt DMCs (deep-and-meaningful chats, for the uninitiated), speeches of encouragement or (gasp!) erudite discussions than any sort of ‘playground politics’.
So, that one dealt with, let me turn to another tired stereotype: all-girls’ schools foster a community of misandrists who, starved of male interaction, invariably fall victim to the clutches of radical feminism and/or lesbianism. Yes, some of my classmates were and probably continue to be lesbians. No, this isn’t remotely a problem. No, this is not specific to all-girls’ schools and I’m fairly sure, (though not absolutely certain), it bore no relation to the fact our only tenuously feasible male proposition was the gap-year backstage-theatre assistant. This is modern society, after all: whether we liked it or not, the internet – not to mention our fairly abundant out-of-school experiences – gave us ample exposure to male society. Believe it or not, some people even had boyfriends.
Hopefully, you get the point I’m driving at here: all-too frequently, justifiable anxieties about gendered education bely inherently misogynist prejudices, which seem to particularly target the all-girls side of the equation.
Perhaps most troublingly of all, this phenomenon can be applied more broadly across youth culture, encompassing other areas traditionally considered to be the domain of teenage girls. Take the realm of music. It’s hardly a well-kept secret that boybands – think One Direction, 5 Seconds of Summer etc. – occupy the lowest echelons of the contemporary musical canon. Even band members themselves have spoken out about their insecurities. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2015, 5 Seconds of Summer claimed to spend “75% of our lives…proving we’re a real band”. Their logic? They were concerned that they were perceived as being, “just…like, for girls”.
Such a statement, which places teenage girls as the lowest possible calibre of music fan, seems rather unfair. The musical tastes of young girls are consistently vilified by society, being considered ‘hysterical’, ‘tasteless’ or ‘immature’. Yet charges that their tastes are indiscriminate fall apart when you consider that, for every Harry Styles, there was a John Nobody who failed to gain a foothold. Equally, when it came to David Bowie or the Beatles, it would be fair to say that teenage girls got things pretty spot on.
Perhaps you think it’s a stretch to expand my enquiry to these cultural parameters. Yet I can observe a worrying trend here that needs to be redressed. It seems we have developed a deep-rooted association between teenage femininity and a culture of weakness, triviality, and hysteria. For reasons that continue to be baseless, teenage girls and their associated cultural spaces are belittled by society. Like their prevailing music tastes, all-girls’ schools are stereotyped as places deserving of mockery and derision. So, by all means, weigh up the pros and cons of single-sex versus co-educational education. Just please, don’t belittle my all-girls school in the process.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew