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June 13th 2018

Sports, the GDST Summit and the Myth of Normalcy

It has been an uncharacteristically quiet fortnight at Blackheath High School, with all the Senior girls engrossed in their exams and Year 5 and 6 on their residential trips. We managed to squeeze three excellent Junior Sports Days in before they left and it was brilliant to see the girls jumping, running, balancing and throwing with such gusto. They were cheered on by a great contingent of family supporters; thank you to you all for your enthusiasm. Read more about school sports at Blackheath High.

This week saw the annual GDST Summit for Headteachers, Governors and friends of the GDST. It was an inspiring event with a range of provocative and fascinating speakers, ranging from Nicky Morgan to Futurologist Sophie Hackford. A special well done to our very own Miriam Kennedy, GDST Young Musician of the Year, who opened the Summit's reception.

It was an invigorating and thought-provoking conference, which left me more convinced than ever that the forward-thinking and fearless education we are providing in GDST schools for our girls really is more important than ever in preparing them for their futures. You can find out more about the themes of the conference on the GDST website.

There has been some coverage in the national press of late, revisiting the question of single sex vs co-educational schools and the relative merits of both, in the light of some boys’ schools choosing to admit girls. I generally feel these reductive articles are a bit depressing, as there is clearly room for both approaches in a rich and diverse educational offering in the UK; it is great that you have the choice as parents. I recently read an excellent piece by our Director of Innovation and Learning, Dr Kevin Stannard, which gave a much more nuanced view and which seems helpful to share in a quiet news week:

“It is generally accepted that girls and boys are different, and develop differently over adolescence. To be sure, there is a gender dimension to learning: in many cases a girl’s self-image, sense of worth, confidence, classroom behaviour, even subject choice and achievement, are all affected by the presence of boys.

Boys’ schools (and it is almost always boys’ schools) decide to admit girls for a variety of reasons, including the opportunity to boost student numbers and the chance to substitute bright girls for the tail of less able boys – guaranteeing a boost up the league tables. The educational arguments for co-ed are almost entirely about the advantages for boys. Indeed, the accumulated evidence is that boys benefit from having girls in the class; but there is no real evidence that girls benefit from having boys around.

It is not impossible for co-ed settings to ensure that girls and boys get equal opportunities, but putting children willy nilly into mixed settings does not in itself create gender equality. Teaching practices (like the nature of questioning and scaffolding), and curriculum choices (like topic options in Science, themes in History and texts in literature) need to be as accessible and interesting to girls as to boys; and the entire school culture needs to reflect and reinforce a gender equality agenda. Opening the door to girls does not solve the problem of inequality; in fact, it poses it anew.

Advocates for co-education insist that the best way of preparing young people for the world is for schools to be structured as exact facsimiles of that world. The trouble with co-ed apologetics is that it conflates gender blindness with gender equality. There is a danger that co-ed contexts simply inscribe societal inequalities and skewed gender stereotypes onto schools. Currently, girls are under-represented in Science subjects post-16 at most co-ed schools; girls continue to be subjected to low-level but persistent sexual harassment in mixed schools; girls show a much greater propensity to opt out of sports activities in mixed settings. In co-ed contexts, girls tend to be over-represented as participants in, but underrepresented among the leaders of, extra-curricular clubs and societies. At present, this largely reflects wider society; and schools do not exist to reflect and reinforce these inequalities.

We all want to prepare girls for a more equal world but structural inequalities remain, and this surely justifies attention to the education of girls as girls.

Female students live in the ‘real world’ on a daily basis with fathers, brothers and male friends. They do not need practice in co-ed contexts before being let loose on the world. They do need and deserve to be prepared for a world in which the rhetoric of equality too often collides with a very different reality. All girls' schools do not exist to bubble-wrap their pupils; they exist to inspire and enable young women to thrive in, as well as challenge and change, a society that is far from equal. In GDST schools, pupils receive an education that puts them front and centre and boosts their confidence, empowering them as they step-out into the world. They are taught to aim high, and to meet obstacles with resilience.” (‘The Myth of Normalcy’ by Dr Kevin Stannard).


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