When I tell people I went to an all-girls school, I inadvertently find myself rushing to reassure that a) I didn’t go the entire seven years without any male contact and b) that contrary to Wild Child’s depiction, I couldn’t identify a lacrosse stick if it hit me on the head (luckily, in that situation, I don’t think it would be my first priority anyway). Now more than ever, in a time when we are desperately trying to dispel toxic masculinity and achieve gender equality, the idea of single-sex education seems woefully outdated. However, my experience at a state-run single-sex school was one I still cherish to this day and an experience that has undoubtedly shaped my friends and I.
Single-sex schools are a dying breed. Today there are only 365 in England (207 of them all-girls and 158 all-boys), compared to 2500 four decades ago. Common criticisms include the argument that segregating genders doesn’t give students a realistic concept of reality, leaving them unprepared for the world of work and the belief that single-sex schools result in more bitchiness and competitiveness amongst students. The bitchiness line is usually the first to be wheeled out when I mention my school experience;
“Oh god, that must have been awful, girls can be such bitches, I bet it was toxic”
Etc. Etc. And truth be told, my school was bitchy; there was a constant circus of drama and gossip was traded as if it were precious currency. However, I’m not entirely convinced that the presence of testosterone would have immediately neutralised this. The idea that girls are in dire need of Y chromosomes to swoop in and diffuse all tension with one quick spritz of Lynx Africa is perhaps a little simplistic. In fact, without the presence of boys, in general there was less showing off and bravado – that was saved for the bus station or parties (where all the real drama seemed to take place). Ultimately, without the encouragement of boys, we all grew up and out of the bitchiness, learning to set differences aside and respect each other’s privacy.
In terms of actual learning, I also never felt at a disadvantage at my all-girls school. In fact, without any concept of ‘gendered’ subjects, myself and my peers took A-levels in Maths and Chemistry as keenly as we did English and Drama. Research has shown that Girls attending single-sex schools tend to rate higher in maths and sciences abilities, whereas boys rate higher in English when attending an all boys’ school. Furthermore, it’s not only performance that can be affected, but the choice of subjects too. The Institute of Physics commented that compared to their peers in mixed schools, females in girls’ schools are more likely to take physics at A-level — a subject that is typically male-dominated.
My close friend Meg told me, “The girls in my school were brought up in blissful ignorance of the glass-ceiling framework of the world outside the school gates. It meant that the sky was the limit and we knew little of being stopped on our path to success. It made me value my passion and drive and not afraid to push myself into the real world.”
That’s, of course, not to say that mixed gendered schools are unable to empower girls in the same way – ultimately it comes down to the school’s fundamental values and the passion of its teachers. I feel lucky, however, that the idea that certain subjects or career paths were more suited to the opposite sex never even entered into my consciousness.
Attending an all-girl school wasn’t, however, all sunshine and roses. I have no doubt that the experience altered the way I view and interact with men, and probably not for the better. Looking back, I didn’t have guy friends as a teenager. Boys existed at parties and were there to be snogged or cried over. In my earlier years, school discos sometimes felt like too much pressure to bear; when dozens of sweaty, panda pop fuelled boys would descend on the hall for 3 hours. As we grew up and moved on to house parties relationships relaxed, but the same feelings of ‘otherness’ did persist somewhat.
One friend commented on how when we did mix with guys at parties it was never really on a friendship basis;
“There would be complete segregation at parties until people got drunk and suddenly were kissing and mingling – there was never much in-between. We viewed boys as romantic propositions, not normal beings”.
I think this was also reflected in my attitudes to appearance as a teenager – I would happily spend all day trampling the corridors with a makeup-free face and my hair scraped back into a bun, only for the bell to ring at 4pm and for the toilets to become an explosion of dream matte mousse, natural collection mascara and Impulse body spray, all in preparation for the daily descent to the bus station. I highly doubt we would have been arsed applying and maintaining these masks had we been around boys all day, every day, but the limited timeframe we had amongst them meant I never went bare-faced. I worry that this experience, at probably the most formative time in terms of my self-image, has affected the way I present myself to men in the long term.
Ultimately, it’s very hard to decipher how my school experience shaped me as I have nothing to compare it to. I will, however, always feel lucky that I was able to attend a school where I felt comfortable and empowered, with a group of girls who I am sure will remain by my side for decades to come. I’m well aware that my experience isn’t reflective of all girls who went to my school, let alone single-sex schools in general, but I personally don’t regret the seven years I spent neck deep in oestrogen. It’s where I learnt some of my most important lessons; the art of comforting a crying girl through a toilet cubicle door, how to conduct an entire relationship via BBM, and most importantly, the value of female friendship.
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