Why single-sex education works [interview]

Karen Raven

Karen Raven is Headmistress at Chislehurst School for Girls in Bromley. As a senior leader in girls’ state schools for over 20 years Karen is passionate about closing the careers gap between men and women and challenging perceptions of single sex education in the UK.

Website: www.chislehurstschoolforgirls.co.uk Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Image credit: Pxhere. Image credit: Pxhere.

As the debate over single-sex education continues, Karen Raven, headmistress at Chislehurst School for Girls in Bromley, South London, cites the importance she believes all girls’ education plays in preparing young women for 21st century Britain, as well as in closing the careers gap persisting between men and women…

What aspects of single-sex education do you believe to be particularly beneficial to pupil development?

When I first became a deputy head at a girls’ school back in 1988, I noticed the immediate difference between other schools at which I have taught. Not only were the girls far more confident, they were actively encouraged into - and subsequently were far more likely to choose - subjects traditionally viewed as masculine, such as the Sciences or Maths.

Similarly, in mixed classes boys can often dominate teacher attention and therefore lessons. Whilst misbehaviour exists across the board regardless of gender, low-level disruption, particularly in the younger year groups, often is committed by boys. This leads to more attention naturally being given to them, and activities may be geared towards keeping these more disruptive pupils occupied. In an all-girls environment, where attention isn’t diverted to one segment of the class, there is more likely to be equality of opportunity for all pupils.

How can an all-female school aid feminist ideals such as independence, equality and self-confidence?

These ideals: independence, equality and self-confidence are, I believe, the core traits that all-girls education can promote in young women. In the past, leadership roles have always been dominated by men and, despite having a female prime minister today, we’re still experiencing the fallout of this. Girls are far less likely to put themselves forward for leadership, and even in group tasks boys can dominate work and discussion.

Certain subjects, especially the Sciences and Maths, also tend to be dominated by boys, and can often be viewed as ‘masculine subjects’. Despite girls gaining a higher number of A and A* grades, only 21.5% of entrants to A-level Physics last year were female. Similarly, despite more women attending university overall, less than a third of undergraduates studying Engineering, Maths and Computer Science at Cambridge were female.

At Chislehurst, I’m proud that 30% of our current Year 11 cohort have applied to study A-level Maths. The number of students wanting to study Science is also around a third of the year group. Initiatives like our coding club are key to this; at a mixed school, STEM groups tend to be dominated by boys, with girls less likely to feel these clubs are relevant to them. With these subjects generally leading to higher-paid jobs, it is essential that we support girls in entering them if our society is truly to be an equal one.

Girls also tend to be highly-motivated by projects which are beneficial to the community - rather than financially lucrative - so getting more girls involved in STEM has huge benefits for all of society, as well as the girls engaged in these subjects.

You mentioned there that you first became a deputy head at a girls’ school back in 1988. What are the most interesting single-sex education developments that you've noticed in the last 30 years?

There has been a huge widening in university participation, with women far outnumbering men in higher education. On the whole, though, the benefits of single-sex education in improving girls’ confidence, leadership skills and independence have remained much the same.

The largest change has been a wider general awareness of the importance of girls’ education, specifically in encouraging girls’ participation in subjects viewed as traditionally masculine. In this area, society as a whole has caught up with what single sex-education has been striving to achieve for the past 30 years.

This has a lot to do with the number of additional women who have entered the workforce in this time period. With so many more women occupying senior positions in business and the public sector, their sway on closing the gender gap has been hugely influential. The current young female parliamentarians are also great role models for girls.

How does Chislehurst School for Girls go about working with parents and guardians?

Involving parents in careers talks and lessons plays a huge part in widening girls’ outlooks. One of our mums, who is also a previous school governor, is the senior nurse lead for the entire London area, and has delivered inspirational talks encouraging Chislehurst students to enter careers in nursing and medicine. We’ve also had talks by other inspirational female figures, such Dawn Whittaker, chief fire officer and CEO for East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service.

What do you hope to achieve in the next year?

At Chislehurst we want to continue to expand our international links. We’re already a British Council Outstanding school, and we’re keen to build on this so that our students have a greater awareness of the global opportunities that exist for them. Many of our girls don’t have the opportunity to travel abroad, so ensuring they have an awareness of the global economy and their own place in it is hugely important to us.

More widely, I hope to see a continuation of the drive to get girls into STEM. To really achieve this, though, there needs to be a far greater emphasis on flexible working opportunities. Young women shouldn’t feel that they have to make a choice between having a family and having a career. This perception needs to be recognised more widely if we hope to overcome it.

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