The Vagenda

In (Vigorous) Defence of All-Girls’ Schools


In my high school days, people always seemed genuinely troubled when I told them I went to a girls’ school. They’d normally say something along the lines of, ‘Ooh, that must be really [insert negative adjective],’ while the look of concern on their faces would generally indicate that I should expect to be slipped a scrap of paper with the number for Childline on it at any given moment. All this, despite the fact that they would, almost invariably, have little to no idea what they were talking about.

Now, I’d be the first to admit that my seven girls’-school years weren’t exactly all peaches and cream (breaking down into floods of tears in the middle of my GCSE RE exam particularly springs to mind… And no, it wasn’t because of a sudden crisis of faith). Overall, however, they were pretty great and, having spent a good chunk of them plotting ways to get boys into the place, I’ve retrospectively become glad that I didn’t.

Girls’ schools get an undoubtedly bad rap: the general consensus seems to be that they’re all either convents for the every-which-way-repressed or places of rampant debauchery, like St. Trinian’s on crack (don’t even get me started on the wildly sexist assumptions inherent in this boring old manifestation of the Madonna/whore dichotomy). Of course, no school – single-sex or otherwise – could ever be perfect but, in the name of balancing the scales a little, let me tell you why a girls’-school education has the potential to be really fantastic.

There is, of course, an obvious academic benefit (according to a 2012 Institute of Physics report, single-sex schools send 2.5 times more girls on to study A-level physics than mixed schools) but even more important, in my opinion, are the much overlooked social benefits. Despite the ‘bitchiness’ often lazily attributed to every girls’ school (because, you know, all girls are entirely incapable of getting on with all other girls, bitches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks, etc.), my high school years actually did wonders for my confidence and self-esteem. Bear with me here.

You see, the beauty of educating teenage girls in a single-sex environment is that, for those five or seven or however many years, you provide them with an environment largely removed from the sexism that is so deeply ingrained in wider society. Instead, you allow them to spend their formative years free from gender stereotypes – between 9 and 3.30, Monday to Friday, during term time, at least.

It’s not that mixed schools deliberately or consciously enforce gender roles, but the same thing that causes men in the UK still to outnumber women in the boardroom 4:1 and out-earn them by 15% means that girls and boys continue to be treated differently at mixed schools. It may be a throwaway comment here, a spot of preferential treatment there: all seemingly trivial acts, done without thinking, which only serve to confirm gender stereotypes for all children. Of course, sexism is not entirely absent from girls’ schools either (one of my male teachers once ‘jokingly’ told a class full of 15-year-old girls that a woman’s place was in the kitchen, which, needless to say, did not go down well) but it is, quite simply, much less of an issue.

So, what does this mean for girls’-school students? Well, in my experience, it gives them a great deal of confidence, whether it be to take A-level physics, wear no make-up or be comedian-style funny – all things that society, sadly, still deems strange or inappropriate for girls. Do these things happen in mixed schools? Of course. Are they more common in girls’ schools? I’m saying yes. It’s not that we were explicitly told that we had every right to do this stuff – it just never occurred to us that we wouldn’t. With no boys to be compared to, nothing seemed off-limits to us.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way advocating a life lived without boys (the horror!) But I do think that it’s no bad thing for a girl to spend a school-sized chunk of her hugely determinative teenage years in the company of other girls. Nor is this article intended to be a pro-girls’-school manifesto: along with all the good stuff I’ve mentioned, rest assured that there was plenty of bad stuff too – just like in any other school. But the pros still managed to far outweigh the cons.

Since moving on to university, the most common question people have asked me is, ‘What’s it like being with boys again?’  My answer to this is normally twofold: first of all, just because I went to a girls’ school for seven years does not mean that boys are an alien species to me – I’ve always had male friends. But more importantly, I tell them, I honestly hadn’t even noticed. Whatever other people seem to think, I don’t have some kind of mental alarm system that goes off whenever I speak to a member of the opposite sex. I’m not thinking, ‘I’m a girl, speaking to a boy’ – I’m thinking (if, indeed, I am thinking at all), ‘We are two people, having a conversation.’

And that, more than anything, is what I most value about my girls’-school education: it brought me up as a person, rather than a girl.


25 thoughts on “In (Vigorous) Defence of All-Girls’ Schools

  1. I strongly agree with this – I had 7 happy, hard working, sci-fi loving, no make-up wearing years at my girls’ grammar school – and my friends’ experiences at mixed schools have convinced me I wouldn’t have been anywhere near as happy if I’d been in that sort of environment (NB this post comes with the caveat that this is just my experience!)

    I was a very late bloomer who wore bad glasses, had awful hair and skin and was always ‘the funny one’ in my friendship group, but I was perfectly happy that way as I never felt I had to be someone else to or tone it down so as not to look silly in front of boys. I’m sure there are girls who went to mixed schools who didn’t give a toss about what boys thought of them, but I’ll admit I wasn’t that brave at the age of 13.

    Of course not everyone was like me – some girls in my class were always caked with make up, spent all their time talking about boys and used so much Sun In their hair fell out ( although the advent of Babyliss Steam Shot hair straighteners had a hand in that too).

    But it was a v supportive environment where we were encouraged to be ourselves and work as hard as possible to achieve our goals. If I have a daughter, I know I’d like her to go to my old school.

  2. When I was training to be a teacher in the late 70′s we were told girls schools are best for girls. Mixed schools are best for boys. Boys have to have a subservient group to dominate/bully. In single sex schools it is the weaker boys. Guess who it is in mixed schools!

  3. Totally agree with all this.

    I went to an all-girls’ school and pretty much loved every second of it (it was Biology GCSE I freaked out over though). There was a boys’ school next door and they had communal activities – orchestra, drama, shared 6th form subjects – but they were (generally) a nice aside rather than ‘OMG! Boys!’

    I had such a rich vein of friends from different backgrounds because we had to travel from all over the city and the school instilled not just academic values but community values as well – we all had to do an afternoon a week (in the 6th form) at either a nursing home or an inner-city school.

    I couldn’t recommend single-sex secondary education for girls more highly…although I could have just been very lucky…

  4. I agree, but I think all boys schools are probably a bad idea, because it lets the boys assume men are the born, be unused to girls in an academic setting, and offer no counterpoint to sexism fed them through media.

  5. I went to an all girls boarding school, and whilst I have fond memories of some excellent teaching and made life-long friends; there is a sense that we “got through” something together. I left feeling I was indeed capable of being whatever I wanted to be but, like many others there, raddled by eating disorders and body dysmorphia born of endless comparisons with each other. So, in my opinion, girls schools yes, boarding girls schools no.

  6. I loved my time at my all-girls school. I don’t think I could have made it through those horrible spotty teenage years surrounded by boys and the chaos that comes with their involvement in a class room and social environment. I think I was really lucky to have had the chance to grow in such an environment, especially as the majority of the teachers and senior staff happened to be female as well.

    However, the all-boys school, which was on the same campus as ours, seemed to have an almost regressive effect on the boys. When I finally met them (BOYS!!) in the sixth form I was so shocked by how blatantly sexist many of them were. As well as this many of the girls in the sixth form often said they didn’t like walking round the boys school because of the constant heckling and ogling. But what can you do when ‘boys will be boys’ *grinds teeth*

  7. I whole heartedly agree with this post. I’ll be starting my final year in an all-girls school in September and I’ve absolutely loved my time at it. It feels so liberating to be taught in the environment it provides, enthusiastic teachers and alongside inspiring girls in all years. My experience and that of my friends is that everyone gets on at our school, there’s a lot of interaction between year groups too, and there being few barriers between girls of different years adds to the friendly atmosphere and the feeling that we’re all there to learn from and help one another.

    As I’ve become increasingly aware of the sexism which is so widespread in society in general, I’ve become even more appreciative of the time I spend at school. Free of sexism, stereotyping, assumptions about what subjects I’d be into. The most taken A Levels are Maths and Economics, and a lot of girls take Physics too. Two of my friends from the year above are going off to do Engineering at university. What frustrates me is how many girls in mixed schools could excel at such subjects, given a real choice and opportunity to pursue their interests.

    There’s also a ‘boys’ equivalent’ of our school with whom we do a fair few activities, joint concerts, plays, even a charity sporting fixture before Easter (which I’m pleased to say the girls won!). As you say, we’re certainly not completely oblivious to the existence of boys.

    Of course, that isn’t to say that many girls don’t thrive in mixed schools, clearly a huge number do, and for some that may be the best environment for them. For me, though, the confidence I have now is largely thanks to the girls’ school I attend and the intelligent, inspiring, funny and caring friends I’ve made at it. I’m so grateful I’ve been educated at one. I’d rather a society in which it didn’t have such an impact to go to one if that makes sense, free of sexism, stereotypes etc, but as things are, it’s done wonders for me.

  8. I respectfully disagree with Quixim above – I liked the atmosphere at my all boys’ state school for exactly the same reasons as the author of the article liked her all girls’ school.
    French was a hugely popular A-level subject at my school, and I didn’t even realise languages were a stereotypically non-masculine subject until I got to university and found myself as the only straight male in a language class of twenty or so. Boys had the confidence to speak up in class without the feeling that the girls would laugh at them – sure, there are many other factors which affect confidence, it’s not like every single student was the epitome of self-esteem, but it helped. Boys also felt more free to do creative or expressive hobbies like choir and art and writing.
    It’s not like we weren’t exposed to girls in an academic setting either, as there was an all girls’ state school just down the road and there were all kinds of joint events held with them.
    Contrary to popular belief, we weren’t overly preoccupied with not appearing gay (which is how it was in my previous mixed school), that kind of alpha bravado was much more muted as we pretty quickly figured out that we were all in the same boat (which also allowed the genuinely gay guys to come out, to the reaction of “okay, fair enough”).
    Again, this is just a single experience, but I completely agree with the author’s final line – my all boys’ school brought me up as a person, not as a boy.

  9. This article could not be more dissimilar to my all-girls education. I was a little late to realising that I was a feminist, because of all the damage caused by the all-girls environment.

    There were charts that went around the year of who had kissed a boy and, later, lost their virginity; rankings of the biggest boobs; surveys and subsequent posters detailling who had started their periods; women’s magazines were EVERYWHERE; right from Year 7 there would be girls on the desks practising sexy dancing or even giving each other lap dances, and the ones who started off appalled by what they were seeing and not joining in pretty quickly felt like there was something wrong with them…..

    Every single girl in my year, at some point in the 7 years, had an eating disorder.

    By the end of Year 13 about a third of the year was high as a kite most of the time, just to get through the day.

    Two years later, one was dead.

    That’s not to mention the verbal and emotional warfare, the fear of saying anything or doing anything in front of anyone other than your closest friends for fear of the way it would be twisted and used to ridicule you. Who could you really trust? Information was a currency, our economy was gossip. It was ruthless. It was eat or be eaten. Cos we weren’t eating anything else.

    There was one exception. The head of the Lower School, so years 7-9, taught us PSHE in those years. She drilled it into us that we must always always vote in every election because women had died for our right to vote and it was our responsibility as women to exercise that right.

    That’s it. That was all the feminism in our privileged girls school.

    Girls school nearly killed me. Me, and many others in my year. It actually did kill one. I would have been a much more stable, centred, well-rounded and happy person if I’d been to mixed school, I’m sure of it.

    Incidentally, my husband went to an all-boys school. He was much more of a feminist than me for a long time.

    • I have to agree I went to an all girls school until I was fifteen and it nearly killled me. The bitching, the obsession with getting a boyfriend the rampant homophobia when I came out as bi and above all the attitude of ‘if you aren’t just like us you are nothing’. I transferred to a mixed school and it was so much better.

      • Some schools just breed really toxic environments, regardless of the intake. From my experience of the schools in my area the girls at mixed schools were subject to just as much bitchiness as the ones in the girls’ schools, mostly because pretty much everyone between the age of 11-15 is a melodramatic arsehole (including boys, where on earth has this attitude that men aren’t bitchy come from? Some of the cattiest, nastiest things I’ve ever heard said have come from the mouths of men). Some schools definitely have a nicer ethos than others but I’ve found that has little to do with the sex of the pupils.

  10. I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with you here. I think it’s highly important for girls and boys during their formative years to be mixed.

    I went to a mixed secondary school, but for A-level I studied drama at an all-girls school’s sixth form college (which meant that there were some boys there from the local boys school and from my mixed one, but girls were in the majority). Even at the end of the two years of A-level, the girls from the girls school still did not intergrate with the boys, or consider them as friends. I believe that my time at a mixed school enabled me to get along with both boys and girls. The girls assumed that the only reason I spoke to the boys was because I fancied them, which is just ridiculously immature. One of my friends at university who went to an all-girls school actually said to me “boys and girls can never just be friends”, which I actually found quite sad. If you think about about it, this means that she views boys as sex objects if she thinks a girl can never have a platonic relationship with them.

    Not all of the girls at a girls school are as lucky as you to have had male friends – or even male siblings. Some of them could go through their formative years hardly knowing any males, which I think can lead to some very warped misconceptions about males. We have to intergrate, whether it be at university or the workplace, and I just don’t think single-sex schools prepare you for that. I don’t see the necessity in further seperating sexes in the years where our opinions on the opposite sex shape how we treat them later on in life.

    • From my experience this attitude of “boys and girls can never be friends” is pretty rare, though. I went to a girls’ school, had few to no male friends until I was 17 and started dating a guy from a mixed school and got on great with them. Went to uni, lived with 3 guys in first year and they are still some of my best friends today. Even the girls in my year who had basically no male contact at school now have mixed friendship groups. As long as you’re not actively taught to treat men like some alien species, it’s pretty easy to just interact with both genders as just people.

  11. I think this article makes some really incredible points and I whole-heartedly agree with it – but it seems to me like all-girl school’s are treating the symptom, not the disease.

    I’ve attended mixed schools all my life, and while they certainly weren’t a hotbed of feminist ideals (neither were they horrifically anti-woman, to be sure), I did learn a helluva lot about how to navigate sexist spaces without compromising my feminist views. Often times it is the school’s institution itself (as opposed to the boys also in the schools) that is creating the hostile environment. One example out of many is how institutions police girl’s bodies via dresscodes and are thus teaching both boys and girls that women are something to be consumed and that a male’s reaction to a woman’s clothing is out of his control. I’d bet money that realizing how fucked up that is and fighting against it can be valuable to a girl’s sense of self-worth, because I know for sure it did with mine.

    Am I, in part at least, damaged goods because I grew up with men? Absolutely. I struggle with internalized sexism that was handed down to me at a young age, most likely through the education I went through. But I don’t think the answer, in the long run, should be separating men and women like this. Fleeing the fucked-up system that is public/mixed school education is great for the individual, not for the society, because you can’t force the broken system to change. Maybe the answer is to bring up a few generations of kick-ass feminists via all-girl’s schools who can in turn raise their daughters well enough to be able to challenge the sexism inherent in mixed schools without sacrificing their self-esteem and potential.

    (I’d also like to add that the concept of “all-girl’s” schools relies on a gender binary that can be INCREDIBLY damaging to those who don’t fit in either box, but I’m not well-versed enough in this area to coherently argue that point, honestly.)

  12. I’d just like to speak up for the opposition: I went to a mixed school and I had a great school experience. I was at least top two in my year in maths in the school and this wasn’t the least bit odd. I didn’t wear make-up, had friends in all groups and wasn’t “popular”.
    I think school is always very personal experience-wise. I’m all for girls’ schools but mixed aren’t necessarily the enemy either.

  13. Irene – I TOTALLY agree. As much as I loved my school, the fact that I feel like it was necessary for me not to be educated with boys is so incredibly far from ideal. We shouldn’t need separate schools to protect girls from sexism. The aim is for mixed schools to provide a warm, protective and encouraging environment for EVERYBODY (and not just girls, I should say). I think it’s fine for girls’ schools to treat the symptom in the short term, just as long as we’re fighting like hell to treat the disease as well!

  14. I fully agree with this article. My seven years at an all girls’ grammar school were spent sumo wrestling in the form room, pranking each other and not wearing making up (at least until sixth form). There was some time spent agonising over texts from boys and giving each other makeovers, but I am certain there would have been far more of this, and far less classroom sumo wrestling, were I at a mixed school.

    There was of course gossip, bitchiness and competition in some groups, but the pros far outweighed the cons for me.

    We socialised with boys on the school bus, after school, and at school discos, so we were in no way alienated and I certainly didn’t feel deprived of male contact.

    Both male and female teachers encouraged us to aim to become physicists, engineers etc. and I don’t think I experienced a scrap of sexism or gender stereotyping the whole time I was there.

    If I have daughters I will be hoping that all girls’ schools still exist when they turn 11.

  15. I disagree about single sex schools. I think they are treating a symptom rather than solving the cause.
    Why should we be divided for our school years from the diversity we get from being mixed.
    I never remember there ever being any distinction between what was masculine or feminine in either subjects or actitives, other than french class, where the boys were reluctant to speak with a french accent for fear of being branded efeminate.
    Some great people went on to great things from my down at heal mixed comprehensive. And some of the longest lasting friendships have been with some of the lads I shared classes with.
    To reach equality, we need to be mixed.
    As an aside, some of the most highly strung, sexually frustrated women I’ve met had attended all girls boarding schools. They would be only too eager to find a rich man and have babies at his mansion. Gender division is ridiculous. Gender blindness by mixing on a 100% equal level is how it should be.

  16. ‘… girls and boys continue to be treated differently at mixed schools. It may be a throwaway comment here, a spot of preferential treatment there: all seemingly trivial acts, done without thinking, which only serve to confirm gender stereotypes for all children.’

    Sorry, what proof do you have of this? You didn’t go to a mixed school and you haven’t actually offered any examples of this in the text other than simply saying it’s true. I think this article is interesting, but as someone who DID go to a mixed school I’d say that they still have a lot of benefits and that they do not reinforce gender stereotypes anymore than single-sex ones. If anything, seeing girls outpeform boys and maths and science in front of your very eyes is actually pretty great for your confidence as an A Level student.

  17. I went to a mixed school, and a mixed college, and loved it, taking sciences and further maths in a very male dominated environment. When I met people at uni who had attended all girls schools, I was that horrible person asking them questions, assuming all girls schools were naturally bitchy, boy-crazy hotbeds of eating disorders.

    I took those prejudices into my training as a science teacher, where I worked in a variety of mixed sex schools.

    My first (and so far only) teaching job is at a non selective, non fee paying all girls school in a very deprived area. It’s amazing. I didn’t realise how few girls were speaking up in the science lessons I took before, especially about “embarrassing” subjects like reproduction. The environment in my school is extremely positive, the girls volunteer for leadership roles, I have a regular cohort of 40 who come to STEM club at lunch time, a similar number are in robot club, and are walking around wearing “coding is for girls” badges. They regularly win national debating competitions, and more amazingly, the different year groups casually chat.

    I had never been asked questions by 13 year old about why all the scientists we study are white men before. My pupils are from all over the world, speak 60+ languages, and we have no racism problems.

    Im a total all girls school covert, and very proud to be raising strong, independent young feminists.

  18. At 6’1 and incredibly academic, I’m so so glad I was never in a class of 5 foot prepubescent fourteen year old boys who felt I challenged their manhood.
    Girls schools for the win

  19. I can only speak from experience as well, but I went to both an all-girls school (up to GCSE) and a mixed school (sixth form), and I found the mixed school to be in lots of ways a much healthier environment.

    At the all-girls school we had a strange view of boys. They were pretty much solely there to be boyfriends. I wasn’t lucky enough to have male friends or a brother and in year 8 the pressure to get a boyfriend descended before I actually even knew any real-life boys. I don’t think that a large group of girls will automatically be bitchy, but in that hothouse atmosphere where going out was rare and interacting normally with boys was rarer, each bit of gossip was dissected and picked over for weeks. Boys were so unknown to us that when we actually met them, we pretty much listened to everything they had to say in unquestioning amazement. Not an attitude helpful for dealing with sexism, really.

    At the mixed school some boys had outrageously sexist attitudes, and that was a problem. But equally, the girls and the other boys seemed more able to see these attitudes for what they were. And oddly, for me at least, in a mixed school gender seemed to matter less. I learned how to talk to boys without a siren in my head yelling ‘BUT HE’S A BOY AND YOU’RE A GIRL’, and I didn’t feel I needed to change my behaviour around boys anymore.

    Sure, girls at my all-girls school didn’t feel the need to curb their behaviour because of boys during school hours. But as soon as they met boys, many of them felt they needed to change their behaviour and become much less assertive and confident than the girls in the mixed school. So they were well prepared for an all female environment, but not so well prepared for the rest of the world.

    Just a few observations – every school and every individual is different. But personally I felt the pressure of gender and its requirements much less in a mixed school.

  20. I agree with the commentors on here who say that you can’t possibly know what sexism mixed school children do or don’t experience having never attended one! I went to a mixed school but never once felt that the presence of boys damaged my education. I took triple science (A* in physics, A in the other two) and never once felt pushed out of my electronics lab (also A*) or IT suite. I also never felt pressured to not perform in the arts and humanities loved languages and eventually went on to study them at uni. Frankly given my largely male group of friends, I would have been pretty fucking lonely in final year without the boys!

    We’ve had quite a few articles singing the praises of private and single -sex schools, how about someone writing about the positives of attending a state mixed school for a change, Vagenda? After all, they more thoroughly represent the experiences of most 20-something women in this country!

  21. I am very conflicted about my years in single sex education. I spent 5 years at an all girls school and 2 years at an all boys school (it claimed to be mixed but there were only 9 girls in my year). For a long time I had nothing but anger and resentment for the all girls school I attended. I developed a (mild) eating disorder which lingers to this day and will NEVER forget one of the girls asking if I was “STILL a virgin?” at the top of her voice across a full classroom when we were 14. Girls were either slut or virgin shamed depending on their sexual activity.

    I’m now an academic in a very male dominated subject (astrophysics) and seeing the huge amount of conscious and unconscious gender bias present. A few weeks into my fellowship a female academic I hadn’t previously encountered asked if I was a summer student…! The implication being that I couldn’t POSSIBLY be a PROPER astrophysicist. I’m realising more and more that I actually owe a HUGE amount to the girls school I have had nothing but contempt for.

    My younger sister attended the same school despite my vocal objections and loved every second of it. She never felt pressured into sexual activity too early or made to feel she was inadequate based on her looks, so I realise that maybe I just had an unlucky year.

    This post doesn’t have any conclusions…. as I said. Conflicted.

  22. A few lines; food for thought. No conclusion. Just my experience.
    Top London all girls school aged 7-16 = intrinsic feminism: we can acheive anything we can dream of , women couldn’t but now can rule the world; no awareness of sexism, yet no understanding of how to hold a normal conversation with a BOY. Boys were ‘other’, ‘scary’ and had such power over your social status: Girls either knew boys, had boyfriends and were ‘cool’ or were lesser beings; “spods”. Boys were aliens. But cute. Or spotty. But Other. Girls competed, bitched, bullied and strived to be the best at everything. Many many had eating disorders or tarted around. Drinking and drugs normal by age 14.
    Age 16-18. Boys boarding school!!!! Wow. Boys are fun, boys can be friends but you’re never sure if actually they just fancy you. Boys are boring and talk about sport. Boys think they are better than you. It is more important to be pretty than clever, though you get a kind of awed respect if you do better than them in school. But they won’t ask you out if you do. You learn to play dumb just to be liked. Pure, unapologetic sexism. Even more sleeping around. Even more drinking and even more drugs. More make up. More worry about hair and spots and weight. Less interest in grades but an insight into the real world where men and women interact on a daily basis and at least try to understand each other. Much much more fun. Much much less bitchy. I loved being round boys yet hated the sexism. I hated the bitchiness and competitiveness of girls school but still have friends from that time.
    You choose your poison! I don’t believe that one is better than the other – in co-ed schools you learn about life. In a single sex girls school you learn.

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