Zoe MacDougall: As president of the Girls’ Schools Association, what really goes to the heart of the matter for you, when advocating girls-only education?
Samantha Price: Everybody working in a girls’ school is an expert on working with adolescent girls. And I think that gives the girls a real advantage in terms of the kind of support they receive. There is a depth of understanding, of expertise, in our approach to our students. In a single-sex context, we understand how a girl’s brain works, we understand how girls respond, we understand the best way to get a group of girls to really engage with us and with each other. And that gender understanding and expertise makes a huge difference.
ZM: This autumn, as we attempt to move on from lockdown and remote learning, there must be a greater need than ever for just such expertise and understanding. What did you observe of students’ experience of lockdown?
SP: Lockdown restricted the freedom of all young people, and therefore it slowed the natural adolescent progression. Our young people couldn’t go out, couldn’t socialise, couldn’t communicate in the way that they usually would. They couldn’t manage work stress by diffusing it in ways that they have historically.
“Quite a number of students have become fairly introverted.”
As a result, quite a number of students have become fairly introverted. They had to adapt to a much more isolated existence. Their outlet has been, of course, social media, and TikTok and, with it, managing bombardments of messaging about hard-hitting subjects, from body image to gender identity, to other very important matters concerning inclusion and race and so on.
Alongside that you’ve got mental health issues which have emerged, or been exacerbated, in both boys and girls, with regard to eating disorders and self-harm.
ZM: What are your thoughts about how independent schools might respond to our national experience of Covid?
SP: During lockdown, young people were on the receiving end of a huge amount of information which they didn’t have the opportunity to talk through and process. So I think that one of the things we all need to do over this coming year is to listen. We really need to let that weight of information settle. We need to work through some massively important topics with our students and work out how these topics are potentially impacting them and their generation. Then, we need to identify what it is from the last 18 months that we want to take forward as really effective change.
“One of the things we all need to do over this coming year is to listen.”
I believe we need to think innovatively about how we use our digital platforms in order to be able to broaden access to the learning opportunities that we give our own students. I think there’s also great scope to use digital platforms to be able to support girls nationally and internationally, again with that particular expertise in what girls need. With everyone upskilling so quickly in on-line teaching during Covid, another door has opened for us.
The sector has always had a commitment to share our resources where we can. Now, we have more effective ways of sharing good practice and resources with our state school partners, arguably accessing and supporting a greater number of children than ever before. We can also engage more effectively with parents, using digital media for parent-teacher meetings, and for hosting relevant guest speakers online. Ironically, the school community actually grew closer during Covid.
A lot of schools are completely re-vamping their PSHE programmes to address healthy habits for managing stress. We’re also addressing inclusion and what it feels like to belong in greater depth. Different schools are researching mental toughness as a response to greater mental health awareness.
Then there’s another dialogue to be shared about Everyone’s Invited, the topical website which enables girls and women to give an anonymous voice to past sexual conflict experienced in educational settings.
“You’ve got younger pupils who have probably been more engaged with a more mature level of discussion than they might have been. “
Historically, schools started to discuss parties, and looking after yourself in Year 10, alongside the sex and drugs talks. But that’s now shifting right back to the beginning of Key Stage 3.
During lockdowns, so many children have been exposed to sustained periods of social media, without all of the other distractions of going out, and having sports matches on Saturdays and the middle of the week, and going to birthday parties, and so on. And therefore you’ve got younger pupils who have probably been more engaged with a more mature level of discussion than they might have been previously.
ZM: You mentioned Everyone’s Invited as a potential PSHE topic. How does the dialogue about Everyone’s Invited sit within the context of girls-only education?
SP: I think we have a huge advantage. We have the opportunity to be able to talk extensively to the girls about relationships, about what consent really looks like. We can empower them to support each other if they see someone in a potentially compromising situation or if they witness someone making a poor decision. We can encourage them to really develop their voice, which I think is something that girls still need to feel enabled to do effectively.
Being a girls-only school, the girls aren’t with boys day-to-day, and therefore there is no potential for them to be subjected to compromising situations within the school environment. But we do need to make sure that when they’re going off to parties, which they should be doing, they’re well equipped, and also that they don’t demonise boys because nobody wants that whatsoever.
Alongside our girls-only conversations, many girls’ schools work with partner boys’ schools – for instance, Benenden School works with Tonbridge School. We have senior girls talking to senior Tonbridge boys about consent, about difficult situations, about what different experiences feel like from a girl’s point of view. Then of course, the girls are hearing the boys’ points of view as well. Both groups of students are able to really work together. And when senior students are also able to effectively mentor younger students coming through, then I think that’s a really powerful partnership.
ZM: The traditional argument against single-sex education is that it’s not representative of the real world, that girls who attend girls-only schools won’t be as effective as their co-educational counterparts in life and work after school. How do you respond to this argument?
SP: Ironically, I think girls-only education makes girls more confident in the post-school, co-gender environment. In a girls’ school, it’s not about arguing a girl’s point of view with the boys. Girls have space to establish what they really think at school. When you know what you really think, having explored it, you will be much more confident and relaxed in how you communicate it. So not everything you say is going into battle.
“The idea that girls in a single sex school are in an anachronistic environment is very far from the truth.”
I think the idea that girls in a single sex school are in an anachronistic environment is very far from the truth. Everything that we’re doing is preparing them for what they need to thrive, professionally and personally, when they leave. And that’s in our curriculum, it’s in all the professional skills that our girls are learning. It’s about enabling girls to have the confidence to speak up for themselves, to work effectively with others, to make a difference. It’s those softer qualities that are going to enable girls to really navigate their way through the workplace. I think girls’ schools do that really well in very relevant environments.
ZM: The GSA has a thought-provoking programme of events lined up this autumn, including a youth gambling and gaming awareness workshop. What prompted you to take on this issue, in particular?
SP: I think that the pandemic has really exacerbated young people’s reliance on gaming. I was really surprised, when I attended a talk run by the Boarding Schools Association, that gaming was such an issue. And also that gambling was such an issue, amongst schools.
“The number of girls gambling is not that different to the number of boys.”
I was really fascinated to learn that the number of girls gambling is not that different to the number of boys. And I think that’s as a result of lockdown. And this is something that we need to be aware of, to know what it looks like. So much of the gambling is algorithm based that we don’t even recognise it as gambling. So I think there is work to be done there, I think that we’ve got to do that work quite quickly, and I’d hope that we can do so.
ZM: What’s your focus going to be for the coming year as President of the Girls’ Schools Association?
SP: There have been a number of issues in the last 18 months which our young people have experienced including Black Lives Matter; Everyone’s Invited; climate activism; mental health awareness; and the uncertainties surrounding our national assessment and university admissions systems. I think there are really important conversations to be had around all five of those topics. I want girls, through those topics, to find their voice, to enter into dialogues which work towards tangible outcomes, to effect long-standing change.
I think Covid has intensified things an awful lot. I wonder whether we would have had five topics of such intensity emerging in such a short period of time if it hadn’t been for lockdown, which was a time for over-thinking, frustration and social media bombardment.
I think all the topics we’re talking about are really positive – it’s managing them all at the same time that’s more of a challenge.
- Samantha Price has been headmistress of Benenden School since 2014, following a headship at Godolphin School from 2010-2014. She began her teaching – history and art history – in 1999, having previously enjoyed a career at Tate Britain.
- Zoe MacDougall is an educational commentator with extensive teaching experience in the independent and maintained sectors. She contributes to timewithmyteen.blog
This article was first published in the Independent School Management Plus print magazine, out now.