Spotlight On: Single-Sex Education

18 February 2019

This article first appeared in Queenwood News Weekly 15 February 2019.

In the staffroom last week, I asked one of our new teachers how the term had begun. He had not previously worked in a girls’ school, and his first comment was: ‘The girls here are happy to achieve.’ When I pressed him to explain, he said that in the co-educational schools he had worked in ‘the girls are happy to achieve, but only if it goes under the radar’. They didn’t want to draw attention to themselves, and if it became obvious that they were performing at a high level they would start to back off and close down. ‘Not here,’ he said. (This excellent article discusses a similar phenomenon in a corporate context.)

This week, I asked another new teacher who has joined us from a boys’ school, for her first impressions. She offered a few observations about her new colleagues (specifically, how their commitment to the students comes ‘from such a positive place’) and then talked about the reward and challenge of teaching girls. She had planned a certain activity to take a full lesson (according to her previous experience), but she found that the girls entered the room ready to learn and were so hungry for it that they got to the place they needed to be within twenty minutes. Both a joy and a challenge for the teacher! She also said the longer lesson length (70 minutes) allowed her to explore ideas more deeply and generate the space for real creativity.

I have long said that one of the luxuries of single-sex education is being able to set up every aspect of the school to meet the specific needs of boys or girls and this is a great example. Individuals differ, but a typical 13-year-old boy is going to struggle to sustain concentration for extended periods and this must be taken into account when building the school day. Girls, on the other hand, will delve deep more easily and feel frustrated if they have to break off just when it was getting interesting.

There are myriad ways in which a Queenwood education is shaped by our single-sex learning environment. You won’t be surprised to know that we think (and write) about this rather a lot; but in this newsletter, I will focus on just one aspect: confidence. 

There is a good body of research conducted over many decades which shows that, on the whole, men are more confident in their own capabilities than women. It is evident from a young age and is often put forward as the reason for the under-representation of women at the highest levels. If women are born this way, then the onus is on us as women to overcome this – and there is plenty of advice about how to ‘lean in’. The fact that the gap is ubiquitous – in virtually every society and every sphere – may seem to suggest that this is the case. A recent study, however, found that there is one environment in which girls’ self-confidence is exactly the same as boys’: single-sex schools. 

Here is an extract from a Sydney Morning Herald article about the research:

"The study is important because it shows [the confidence gap] is not innate; it does not have to be this way," said lead author Terry Fitzsimmons from the AIBE Centre for Gender Equality in the Workplace at the University of Queensland.

Prior studies in mixed-sex environments have shown the confidence gap begins early. One literature review quoted in the study found girls' confidence began to fall below boys' at age nine, and remained lower until they turned 80.

"What this [study] goes to show, really importantly, is that there is an environment in which whatever is driving that [difference in] confidence between adolescent boys and girls is not happening," Dr Fitzsimmons said.

"We think it's the first study of its kind to establish a set of criteria where that [gap] doesn't hold."    

So far – as extraordinary as it may seem – the only environment in which the confidence gap has been closed is in single-sex schools. And yet to those of us who have experienced it, it’s not so extraordinary.

Our first Balmoral Lecturer this year, Ross Gittins, also wrote recently about research into competitive behavior between men and women, which complements these findings nicely.
But what does this mean for the girls when they leave school?

Firstly, it means that they are less likely to be deterred from university or career choices which have stereotypically been seen as ‘for boys’. An example is the much higher rates of study in STEM for girls from single-sex schools. Secondly, it means that the environmental influences which tend to diminish women’s confidence are not felt by our girls until they are older and have a more mature and settled sense of identity and confidence. At this point, it is much harder to take away their sense of capability and possibility; habits and expectations which a young child might have been willing to accept as ‘normal’ are instead set by a more mature young woman against her years of experience in a setting of true equality. They are ready to confront and challenge inequality, and their default position will be – as for boys – ‘of course this is something I can do’.

It is worth looking at the report in its entirety and I will probably write more later in the year about some other valuable aspects of the research. If you would like to hear more from Ross Gittins, a reminder that his lecture is on 6 March (bookings here). All girls in Years 9-11 are expected to sign up for at least one of the three by next Friday, but we strongly encourage girls of any age – and your sons and friends and neighbours – to come to all of them.