The Power of a Girls-only Education – by Mrs Alex Hems, Headmistress St George’s School Edinburgh

St George's Edinburgh independent girls' day and boarding school Lothian

Mrs Alex Hems

‘I vividly remember, in the Christmas holidays of my final year at St Helen’s, going to a series of lectures and seminars in London designed for English A Level students. I had finished my Oxford entrance exams and had done quite a bit of work on George Eliot, inspired by my English teacher, who had encouraged me to try for Oxford. A boy in one of the seminar groups started saying something about Middlemarch, with gusto and confidence, but I knew he was completely wrong. I had never come across that sort of outspoken confidence before in anyone I had been taught with at St Helen’s, but I had been taught to study, and to articulate my point of view, and I remember piling in as soon as I could, to correct him, no doubt rather self-righteously, but certainly not with any hesitation. I was definitely a shy teenager, and I do believe that if I had faced that level of self-confident assertion in every lesson I attended at school, I might quite quickly have been cowed by it, or at least been reluctant to engage with it. Encountering it, as I did, fairly late in my school career, when I was feeling absolutely on top of my subject, I was well equipped to respond. At school, through my love of English I had found my own voice.

My first job, after leaving Oxford and taking my teaching qualification, was at an excellent co-ed school, where I learned a great deal about teaching and worked with some inspiring colleagues. I think the students there were happy, well cared for and well taught. It is telling, however, that my abiding memories are of the boys I taught, rather than the girls, even though they were equally talented and deserving of my attention. The boys were certainly not naughty, but much more energetic and demanding in the classroom, so my skills, as an inexperienced teacher, were focused to a significant degree, on meeting their more assertively proclaimed needs. In 1997 I moved to St Paul’s Girls’ School to teach English and Latin and then, in 2003 to North London Collegiate School where I was Head of Sixth Form, a role I also held at St Paul’s when I moved back there after having my family. After a spell as Deputy Head at Francis Holland in Sloane Square I moved out to Buckinghamshire, where I was Deputy Head at Wycombe Abbey for four years. In January of this year I took up the Headship of St George’s School for Girls in Edinburgh, a school that was founded in 1888 to provide preparation for young women for entry to university level study. For me, becoming a teacher was a matter of following an instinct. I toyed with a number of other possibilities, but I have been fortunate in my career to have worked with some inspiring colleagues, and to have taught extraordinary, talented, exciting young people. My love of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton started at St Helen’s and over the past 24 years that I have been in teaching I have continued to learn more about the literature I love every term. As a Head I now only teach one lesson a week, but, inspired by my recollections of Miss Leader’s (my headmistress) English lessons when I was in IIIA (year 7) I make sure that I am teaching the girls who are just starting out on their secondary education at St George’s, and I absolutely love the 40 minutes of poetry that I share with them once a week.

Over the course of my career I have become a passionate advocate of single sex education for girls, although I also recognise that it may not be the answer for every girl. I would always advise families looking at schools to think about finding the best fit for their child rather than starting with assumptions about any particular kind of school. Having said that, I believe that there are some things that girls’ schools do remarkably well for their students. In this country there is an urgent need for more equal representation of woman at Board level in almost every field of employment. Earlier this year there was much media attention given to a report published by a team of academics in America that seems to suggest that from the age of six girls start to regard themselves as less innately talented than boys. This is of course disheartening news, particularly as it appears to support the view that girls and women will tend to avoid professions which are perceived to demand genius or a high level of intellectual brilliance. One of the joys of a girls’ school is the relative freedom from gender-related stereotypes. I am not a fan of quotas as a way of achieving equality, although I recognise the arguments in their favour. Young women need strong female role models of leadership and girls’ schools are an excellent way to achieve this. At St George’s, as at St Helen’s, all the leadership positions in the student community are held by girls, from our Junior School upwards; they speak on our Student Council; serve as House Captains, Prefects, Form Prefects; they direct plays, take the lead in debating, our Combined Cadet Force, the Model United Nations group, our Amnesty group, Eco Committee and edit their own award-winning magazine, Independent Women.  We cannot cocoon our girls from all external cultural influences, of course, but we can ensure that they grow up in an environment where their voices are heard, in all their diversity.

The phenomenon known as ‘gender intensification’ means that in a mixed environment gender stereotypes are more likely to be reinforced by the young people themselves. A single-sex learning environment can help both boys and girls to shake free of the stereotypes surrounding subject preferences and approach to learning. There is evidence to suggest that while girls in a girls-only setting will become more assertive and willing to articulate their views, boys in a boys-only group in turn develop more of the collaborative learning style that characterises girls’ approach. It is a natural part of growing up for young people to try to establish where they fit into their peer group, and to begin to articulate their own identity. I believe that girls’ schools enable girls to grow as individuals in their own right, not as they perceive themselves in relation to boys.  We are all aware of the increasing sexualisation of childhood. I believe that girls’ schools allow girls to stay young for that little bit longer, to be uninhibited in their enjoyment of childhood.

All good schools will offer a wide range of opportunities to their students; in a girls’ school no-one ever need fear that she will be the only girl in her physics class, or who wants to join the CCF or pursue a career in engineering, astrophysics or computer game design for example. It is often said that girls and boys learn in different ways; that is a very broad generalisation, and there is also a great deal of variation within the sexes. We know, however, that boys and girls develop at different rates, and a single-sex environment enables teachers to focus on the needs and developmental stage of girls or boys as appropriate, rather than being stretched across both.

Girls’ schools labour under a negative stereotype of being academic hothouses, where girls are encouraged to pursue the top grades at the expense of all else. It is certainly the case that girls in single sex schools are very successful academically; of course it is also true that may single sex schools are selective. Even when this is taken into account, however, it does appear that learning in a girls-only setting is beneficial to girls’ attainment, an effect that is replicated in education systems in a number of other countries aside from the UK. There is of course a great deal more to education than grades, and many detractors claim that girls who have not been educated alongside boys are less able to cope sensibly with a mixed environment at university and in the workplace. There is evidence to suggest that in fact women who experienced a single-sex education are more assertive and confident in their adult relationships, but I imagine that this is a debate that will continue to stir up strong feeling on both sides. There are of course excellent co-ed schools, just as there are some poor examples of single sex schools. Being a girls’ or a boys’ school is not in itself a mark of excellence, but it is my belief in the power of opportunity that a really fine girls’ school offers to the women of tomorrow that makes me such an advocate.’

St George’s School Edinburgh

Article reproduced from the 2017 winter issue of St Helen’s School Alumnae publication, ‘Profile’

School website design: Innermedia