‘We must protect girls’ rights’: the London head fighting for single-sex schools

Jenny Brown is headmistress of City of London School for Girls
Jenny Brown is headmistress of City of London School for Girls - Martin Phelps/© 2023 Martin Phelps, all rights reserved

Women famously ask fewer questions than men at the end of lectures and interviews. But when our girls go to events that involve lots of other schools – many of them mixed – they will raise their hands without any self-consciousness or inhibition. You simply don’t see that from girls from co-ed schools because they are balancing their desire to learn with their awareness of male pupils.

So it was with interest that I read this week that single-sex schools were going out of fashion. This fight for survival is not my experience at all. Applications for places at City of London School for Girls are higher than ever, and I think that during the particular window between the ages of 12 and 16, pupils often do better learning with their own gender.

Single-sex girls’ schools are fantastic at building leadership skills – and protecting and growing self-confidence – during those difficult adolescent years when everyone is undergoing huge hormonal changes. Not least because these changes can be experienced very differently by boys and girls.

On an academic level, girls in single-sex schools are far more likely to take Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects – two-thirds of our cohort take maths as an A-level and equal numbers of our pupils read Stem subjects as humanities at university. This feels important as the particular intellectual space of Stem can be dominated by boys in a co-ed environment – mostly because there are still lingering cultural assumptions that these are male subjects.

Equally, the intense focus on appearance can be a difficult issue for a teenage girl. In a single-sex school, girls have a space where that doesn’t matter, which means they aren’t messing around with mascara wands in between lessons. Here, what counts are ideas. And in the heat of adolescence, they can develop what they think and believe is important, often giving them confidence that will last a lifetime. We need to protect and preserve girls’ rights to experience adolescence without worrying about the presence of the opposite sex.

'Girls in single-sex schools are far more likely to take Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects'
'Girls in single-sex schools are far more likely to take Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects' - Martin Phelps

Single-sex schools also allow teachers to accommodate male and female pupils slightly differently in this complicated hormonal period. Boys, for example, tend to see lunch as a time to refuel before heading out again and expending energy, whereas girls see it as the social heart of the day: an hour to talk and share experiences and forge bonds, and we need to be very aware of these differences, and cater to them.

Equally, in boys’ schools that have recently welcomed both sexes, the focus often isn’t there for the girls. For example, I always encourage prospective parents to ask about resourcing of girls’ sports in co-ed schools: is as much spent on netball and hockey as rugby and football? Of course, an unfair weighting isn’t the case everywhere, but I do believe that it takes decades to grow a co-ed school after it has focused solely on boys for hundreds of years.

Some of the criticisms levelled at single-sex schools have merit – that they aren’t preparing children for real life, for example – but I do think we have resolved many of them in recent years. Yes, children will inevitably be leaving us at 18 for a mixed environment and I do think that perhaps in the past some single-sex schools were too cloistered, which left pupils feeling uncomfortable or shy when confronted with the opposite sex at university. But these days, I can’t think of one institution that doesn’t have strong ties to a brother or sister school – at City of London School for Girls, we hold weekly lessons, co-curricular activities and social events with the boys’ school, to the benefit of everyone.

You also always hear the tired old trope about girls’ schools being hothouse environments, or full of complicated social cliques, but that is absolutely not my experience. We’re far too inclusive for that; what we do is tailor our resources to pupils’ individual needs and intellectual interests. It’s about being focused on individualised care, which leads to great results. People can often lazily equate great results with a hothouse.

And as for girls being bitchy – absolutely not. I think there is a real warmth but also a relaxed excellence that comes from being here, and arguably, far less of the girl-on-girl pressure that comes with a co-ed environment.

That being said, I don’t think a single-sex environment is ideal from 4-18. I sent both my children to co-ed primary schools because I think it’s important for young children to see everyone as a potential friend, and before puberty there are no real downsides to being in a mixed school. I also think there is a good case for mixed sixth-forms, as teenagers are far better at coping with the pressures of learning alongside the opposite sex when they’re a little older.

Still, I think this rush we are seeing for schools to go completely co-ed is a concern. What single-sex schools offer – and particularly girls’ schools – is space for pupils to work out who they are and what they want away from the inevitable pressures of a mixed environment in those complicated adolescent years. That needs to be protected, and what a fun and important mission that is.

As told to Melissa Twigg