Why (and how) girls thrive in girls-only schools

Why (and how) girls thrive in girls-only schools

by Kevin Stannard, Girls' Day School Trust, 2022. Used by permission of International Coalition of Girls' Schools

Excellent schools encourage and assist pupils to realize their potential, and are designed to equip them for success and fulfillment in the world beyond. Girls’ schools are founded on the principle that these aims are best achieved by educating girls separately. 

There is strong evidence that girls-only education leads to higher academic achievement, greater diversity of subject choice, stronger self-confidence and resilience, and enhanced career progression. 

Girls differ from boys not on any intellectual or cognitive dimension, but in attributes and dispositions that have their greatest impact in childhood and adolescence, and which mean that while girls don’t necessarily learn differently from boys, their learning needs and preferences, and indeed their experiences of school, tend to be different from those of boys. 

Typically, girls prefer cooperative, discussion-led learning environments; adapt better to coursework tasks and collaborative, project-based activities; and respond to different forms of curriculum content. 

Girls often also adapt their behavior in the presence of boys – to their own disadvantage, for instance in adopting supporting or moderating roles in discussion, being reticent about risk-taking in inquiry, in their choice of subjects for study, and in their propensity to disengage from co-ed PE and sports activities. 

Gender stereotyping and differences in expectations and self-image tend to affect girls’ behavior, attitudes and choices unless they are checked and challenged at school. Girls should have the opportunity to be educated separately not because they need protection, but because they deserve a level playing field. This is not to suggest that all girls are different to all boys, or that all girls are the same. But typical attributes, behaviors and needs differ. 

Single-sex settings allow teachers and schools to focus more effectively on the needs of individual girls. There is evidence that girls achieve more when they are given their own dedicated space in which to develop. 

In single-sex schools, girls: 

  • are less likely to conform to a priori gender stereotypes, 

  • are less constrained in their choice of subjects, 

  • show a greater propensity to take risks and innovate, 

  • perform better in examinations, 

  • have more opportunities to show leadership, and 

  • are more successful in the job market. 

These effects do not follow inevitably from the mere act of separating the sexes in education. Single-sex education, to be successful, must be more than an organizational device—it needs to be underpinned by a set of principles, and articulated in a set of practices, whereby girls are nurtured, challenged and empowered. 

In coeducational classrooms, boys tend to monopolize discussion, and take more domineering roles in group work and in practical exercises. There is pressure on girls to conform to prejudicial gender roles. Teachers tend to adopt styles and use content that seek to maximize boys’ engagement and regulate their behavior. Girls are assumed to be less problematic: in particular, teachers tend to ignore the strong correlation between high motivation and high anxiety in many high-achieving girls. In girls-only environments, girls’ needs and preferences come to the fore.

Teachers in all-girl classrooms can focus on working with, but also challenging, girls’ propensities to seek security in structures and schedules. Teachers find that younger girls are particularly keen on explicit agendas (for example clarity in learning objectives, and for young pupils a clear schedule for the day), and gain confidence from the rehearsal of past understanding at the start of lessons, and explicit links to next steps at the end. But girls-only classrooms also provide the opportunity to push at rather than simply police these boundaries – to challenge risk-aversion and encourage adventurousness, within an affirming environment. 

In co-ed settings girls often adopt roles that reflect others’ views of them, and which tend to narrow their choices, both academic and non-academic. In single-sex settings a high proportion of girls choose to continue with what are otherwise seen as ‘masculine’ subjects – like maths, physics and (later) engineering. In coeducational contexts, girls are more likely than boys to participate, but less likely to assume leadership roles, in extra-curricular groups and activities. 

Coeducation is nowadays the ‘norm,’ insofar as a majority of schools are mixed. But not being the norm does not make single-sex schools ‘abnormal’. Girls’ secondary schools and colleges were originally established to equalize educational opportunities at a time when secondary and higher education were designed for and dominated by men. In a more equal world we still need single-sex schools because, while society and coeducational schools are more gender-blind, they are still far from gender-equal. 

Some proponents of co-ed schooling have argued that schools should reflect society in their gender composition. But schools should be set up to challenge, not simply to reflect and reinforce, the gender asymmetries that still pervade the wider world. 

Girls schools are designed to maximize opportunities for girls to realize their potential. They do this through: 

  • the design of the schools themselves, including not just the classrooms but also social spaces and informal learning areas, 

  • the timetable (length of lessons and structure of the school day), 

  • curriculum content and classroom interaction, 

  • the pedagogical practice of teachers, 

  • subject choice and co-curricular opportunities, 

  • girls-only sports and fitness activities, and 

  • a whole-school culture conducive to girls’ education. 

Single-sex education serves a subversive purpose: Girls schools seek to challenge traditional gender stereotypes, give girls space to develop a strong sense of themselves and their value, and nurture the confidence to make their own choices, free of any sense that the script has been written for them.