New research findings have indicated that girls in girls’ schools are more confident and emotionally in control than their peers in co-educational schools. We’ve also discovered that headteachers of Girls’ Schools Association schools are well above average in the so-called “Mental Toughness” stakes, demonstrating what the research company – AQR International – calls a “can do” spirit.
But we knew that already, didn’t we?
Not quite. There is often a world of difference between perceived wisdom and reality, and critics will always counter with “well you would say that, wouldn’t you?” The beauty of robust research —whether it corrects misconceptions, confirms long-held views, or surprises us all — is that it can hold up a magnifying glass to the underlying trends, enabling us to understand everything so much better. The best research provides us with insights that can inform our next steps.
In this case, we have discovered differences which indicate that Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) girls, in general, have greater commitment, greater control — particularly emotional control — as well as greater confidence, both in terms of confidence in their abilities and their inter-personal confidence.
We’ve also discovered — in a separate study — that GSA headteachers, as a group, are highly resilient, with a level of so-called “Mental Toughness” significantly higher than the norm. Mental Toughness is measured on a scale of 1 to 10 and the mean total Mental Toughness score for GSA Heads — 6.46 —is consistent with profiles for senior leaders in other sectors such as big corporates.
“The research is a fascinating insight to the environmental impact of a single-sex school on girls’ confidence and emotional resilience.”
AQR International defines the concept of Mental Toughness as “a personality trait which determines in large part how individuals respond mentally to stress, pressure, opportunity and challenge irrespective of circumstances”.
A mentally tough individual, they say, “sees challenge and adversity as an opportunity and not a threat and has the confidence and positive approach to take what comes in their stride.”
Like the girls in their schools, heads scored particularly highly —7.31 — for emotional control which should inspire great confidence in any parent in their ability to lead their schools calmly and robustly through challenging times. And of course, that’s exactly what we have seen during the pandemic.
The new meta-analysis, by AQR International, delves deeper into the Mental Toughness research it completed in 2017, together with new research undertaken during the pandemic. It analyses the responses of girls in single-sex GSA schools, compared with girls in state and independent coeducational schools.
It’s a fascinating insight to the environmental impact of a single-sex school on girls’ confidence and emotional resilience and may well explain why girls in girls’ schools tend to do better academically and are more likely to choose to study STEM subjects, than girls in coeducational schools.
“Research shows that the more mentally tough a person is, the better able they are to deal with being anxious, stressed or depressed.”
AQR’s meta-analysis also includes a study — by Dr Dara Mojtahedi of Huddersfield University — which has explored the relationship between Mental Toughness and self-reported levels of depression, anxiety and stress during the Covid pandemic. This particular study indicates that, the more mentally tough a person is, the better able they are to deal with being anxious, stressed or depressed.
Drawing on this study, the “Mental Toughness” meta-analysis also indicates that the pandemic may have exacerbated any gaps and differences that already existed, with a widening gap between those who are more “mentally tough” and those who are more “mentally sensitive”.
Clearly, this suggests that those at the “tougher” end of the scale may have had a mental health advantage in dealing with the challenges of the pandemic, so there are learning points here not only within the GSA but also for other schools.
“It’s important to see this research confirming everything girls’ school heads have always said about the ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’ that is characteristic of girls in their schools.”
Indeed, AQR’s chief executive, Doug Strycharczyk, has been quoted as saying that this has significant implications for much of the general population, both during and after the pandemic.
It shows, he says, the importance of knowing your own and your organisation’s mental toughness – presumably in terms of preparation and recovery. Doug goes as far as saying that “any government ‘catch-up’ scheme would do well to take this into account” which of course chimes with those calling for catch-up to focus on wellbeing.
My personal takeaways? Mental Toughness is a mindset that can be developed, so it’s important to see this research confirming everything girls’ school heads have always said about the “grit” and “resilience” that is characteristic of girls in their schools. The heads’ data, too, confirms many positives and, who knows, there may be much we can do to draw on those mindsets in our mentoring programmes with tomorrow’s school leaders.