Is single-sex education still relevant today? Marina Gardiner Legge, Head of the independent girls’ school, Heathfield School, argues the case for single-sex education in helping girls to fulfil their potential.

17 Nov 2017

Heathfirld girls' independent day and boarding school Ascot Berkshire

Heathfield School, girls’ independent day and boarding school, Ascot, Berkshire

In an interview at the Independent Schools Show 2017 in Battersea Park, Head of Heathfield School, Marina Gardiner Legge, addressed some common questions surrounding single-sex education.

Why do parents choose single-sex education?

“I don’t believe that they do,” said Ms Gardiner Legge. “They choose the right school for their child and to do this they take into account many different factors.”

Exam results, of course have their role in influencing the decision but as Relocate have reported before, parents juggle many factors when making a school choice. These include practical aspects such as the location of the school and the school’s facilities in addition to the quality of the school’s leadership. A parent’s own school experience will also have a role to play in the decision as will other aspects such as scope for developing a particular talent or interest and pastoral care. Whether a school is single-sex or co-educational will often be at the bottom of the checklist, if at all.

If it’s about exam results, girls appear to perform better in single-sex schools, particularly in STEM subjects. “A recent Girls’ Schools Association survey showed that girls were four times as likely to choose Physics in a single-sex school  than in a co-ed one,” said Ms Gardiner Legge, “This is because they are much more likely to go for a subject that they’re passionate about as they are not worrying about adhering to strict gender stereotypes.”

The number of independent boys’ schools is actually in decline and, increasingly some are starting to admit girls. “It’s about survival and parental demand,” she said. “Schools are increasingly diversifying to meet the demands of parents; if parents have a child at a single-sex school, they may ask if the school would admit siblings regardless of their gender.”

This approach does have its pitfalls however, “PSHE is vital – this must be catered for when admitting another gender. It’s important that the school has expertise and resources to meet their needs. Do not underestimate the importance of role models, “ she said.

How do you respond when people say that single-sex schools do not prepare students adequately for the world of work?

Ms Gardiner Legge highlighted the Harvey Weinstein scandal in her response as she discussed gender parity. “Less than a third of the House of Commons are women. Is this what we are preparing girls for? It is more important than ever to raise happy, strong young women which is exactly what single-sex schooling does. Until we have gender parity in the workplace there is absolutely a role for single-sex education,” she said.

Is it important that the school makes provision for mixing with the other sex?

In responding, Ms Gardiner Legge described Heathfield’s intellectual debating partnership with Eton where societies from the two schools come together to discuss hot topics. She said that it was important for boys to see strong, intelligent girls who could hold their own in an intellectual debate.

A comment from Lucy Elphinstone, Headmistress of Francis Holland School, Sloane Square, supported this belief. She referred to her recent interview in the Telegraph – Sensitive girls should be taught ‘banter’ at school to toughen them up for the workplace – in which she explained the importance of girls learning to ‘blag it’. “Sometimes we need to be able to take risks, to be braver, and sometimes to learn how to wing it a bit,” she said.

Ms Gardiner Legge went on to say that male role models are just as important in girls’ schools as they are in boys – Heathfield’s head of boarding is male.

At what age should parents consider single-sex education for their child?

“It is important for children to grow up around the other sex whilst they are young,” said Ms Gardiner Legge. She counselled that co-educational preparatory or state schools are a good option and that, if they have to prioritise, parents should choose fee paying schools when a child is older as that is when the child will reap the most benefits.


Heathfield School, Berkshire