As an Oxford maths graduate and former actuary, my guess is Donna Stevens, CEO of the Girls’ Schools Association, is pretty good with a spreadsheet.
She must be, given that she also spent five years as head of research at the Independent Schools Council, crunching independent school data.
And in a world where data is now king – it’s the only way to win an argument. In a world of whataboutery and social media misinformation, Stevens recognises this.
When she took the helm of the GSA a year ago, she set up the new research department, in order to enable it to be a mainstream authority on girls’ schools and not simply a champion of the cause.
The GSA constantly stresses the value of girls’-only education as a way to encourage greater female participation in STEM careers, for example.
“Everyone was saying independent schools are developing the whole child but I was like ‘where’s the evidence?’’’
She says: “We want to make the case for girls’ schools but I think it’s important that we’re understanding from a base of authority so that when we make these claims we know that they’re true.
“I remember when I first came into the role at ISC, everyone was saying independent schools are really great, they’re developing the whole child and all these soft skills and I was like ‘there’s no evidence, where’s the evidence?’’’
Happily, a study setting out to look for this did find it. “But you can’t just make these claims without backing them up and I think it’s important that we do that,” she says.
Stevens say she is hoping the research department can eventually look into topics such as parental attitudes to girls’ education. She wants to gauge the impact that the Everyone’s Invited scandals have had on whether families send their daughters to single or mixed-sex schools and sixth-forms.
“Over the last 18 months we’ve all worked closer together because we’ve been battling similar challenges.”
Anecdotally, she says, there’s evidence that there is less migration to mixed sixth forms from girls’ schools this year and overall applications to girls’ schools are up. Official numbers published this spring should provide clearer evidence of any trends.
So under Stevens, the GSA will not be shying away from the public discourse and Stevens herself is bringing some interesting perspectives.
In a world where the public conversation around private schools has sometimes become quite toxic, she is keen to see schools and organisations strengthen alliances built between the sectors during Covid.
“Over the last 18 months we’ve all worked closer together because we’ve been battling similar challenges,” she says, and that collaboration must continue.
This willingness to heal any rift between the sectors could stem from growing up in a working class family in South Wales, attending the local comprehensive and going on to study at Oxford, where she met her independently educated husband.
“We need to be careful that it isn’t just state school versus independent schools, I think there are some really fantastic state schools that are as good as and in some cases better that independent schools,” she says, stressing that the GSA champions girls’ state schools too.
Donna Stevens is excited by the prospect of possible education reform following Covid, even though she acknowledges not all educators will be in the mood for more change just yet. Organisations such as Rethinking Assessment are pushing for reform to GCSE that would enable all their achievements and qualities to be valued rather than a narrow strip of core subjects.
“There’s a real appetite for reform, I just wish we had an approach to education that was a bit similar to economic policy whereby for the main key big things all the parties come together so that every four years the balls don’t get thrown up in the air again.
“There’s lots of great thinking and ideas going on at the moment but I worry with the four year cycle it might get lost…I feel quite excited that there might be change coming for the better.”
“I didn’t have public speaking classes or debating in my school…but I would sing and dance on stage.”
But Donna Stevens is about more than research, data and spreadsheets. One of her true passions in life has been amateur dramatics, something she started in a village hall in South Wales as a child. She now runs her own performing arts school on a Sunday, which is attended by her three children.
Her brother was also involved in performing arts, winning a bursary to the Sylvia Young theatre school aged 10, and becoming a Hollywood producer.
She is now a firm believer in the power of the arts to give young people the skills they need to succeed and be good communicators in all areas of life.
She says: “I didn’t have public speaking classes or debating in my school…but I would sing and dance on stage and in very much the same way you just get comfortable performing to people,” she said.
While she might not come tapdancing across a conference stage, her belief in developing skills beyond the academic subjects is strong.
“I like the conversations going on around other skills that are important. The phrase ‘soft skills’ comes up a lot at conference…I’m not sure that’s the right word because it suggests they are weak and not important…I’m excited about that being better woven into the curriculum,” she says.
Stevens says that although she achieved well at school she was not the brightest in her year, and it was her intense motivation to succeed and supportive parents that won her a place at Oxford.
Would her life have been different had she attended a GSA school perhaps?
Maybe not a huge amount, she says, but the lives of other less motivated students at her school might have been.
She says “I had that drive and confidence from somewhere…I was lucky that I had that, but I would have liked to have seen other people in my school go to a girls’ school because I think it might have made more of a difference for them.”