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Antonia Beary, head of Mayfield School

Mayfield head responds to single-sex debate

Co-ed or single-sex? Head of Mayfield girls' school says girls thrive with or without boys in the room

Posted by Stephanie Broad | January 09, 2016 | Teaching

In the independent sector, there’s something for everyone. But a familiar debate continues: whether single sex or co-ed education provides the best start in life.

Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College, recently claimed pupils at all-girls’ schools are at a disadvantage because they do not mix as often with boys and are, as a result, not well prepared for the workplace.

Cairns previously made headlines in summer 2015 after saying that the brightest students may suffer in exams because they are ‘too sophisticated’ for marking schemes. 

Antonia Beary, head of Mayfield School in Sussex, has released a statement responding to the claims.

She said: “It is rather sad that Mr Cairns is so behind the times. I think that were he to talk to girls at single sex schools he would be disabused, firmly but politely. In fact, I would love to invite him just a few miles down the road to Mayfield where I have a school full of girls happy to prove his opinions outdated and inaccurate. And plenty more former pupils chomping at the bit to enlighten him!

“I suggest that, rather than put them at a disadvantage, single sex schools promote in girls a confidence in their own ability which allows them to engage on a global stage, not only with their peers but with those they are managing and being managed by in a work environment. 

“Looking at the range of subjects Mayfield girls choose indicates that they do not fall into stereotypical roles: maths, chemistry and geography are our most popular and successful A-level subjects but eclectic combinations such as physics and English or history of art, maths and ceramics reflect the diversity and individuality of girls. It is not by chance that we have a history of entrepreneurs. I suggest in fact girls are more resilient, ready to make mistakes, (and learn from them) when they emerge from our schools.

There are also plenty of opportunities for young people to mix outside the classroom, says Miss Beary. 

She continues: “I think it is wholly outdated to think you need to have boys in the classroom to be able to 'cope' with them. And to say that not being in a co-ed school means that you never meet boys, in today's society is frankly ludicrous: our girls have regular involvement with boys’ schools, not to mention the contact they have outside school where social networking predominates and parents are far more open to facilitating their children's social lives. In fact, I believe our girls benefit from the space to be themselves and escape from the pressure to conform to a perceived norm that the media and society (not least teenage boys) place on them.

“No one is saying that girls and boys should be isolated until they go to university. Of course lots of opportunities to meet on a social, intellectual and professional level are important, but these don't have to be every minute of the school day. Good schools facilitate opportunities to mix outside school.” 

Could it be that one size does not fit all? Families should have the freedom to choose

Families looking to the independent sector are spoilt for choice – so should different styles of education be celebrated?

Miss Beary concludes: “If co-ed schools were the panacea, particularly in terms of promoting equality why, after several generations do we still not have more women in prominent positions of authority and leadership? Could it be that one size does not fit all? I find it strange that in a world where freedom of choice is so important and (rightly or wrongly) more choice is perceived as better, that we are seeking to insist that co-ed should be the only form of education available. Families should have the freedom to choose.

“My staff are excellent at teaching girls how to think for themselves. This is indubitably easier without boys in the classroom. These results come from giving the girls the confidence to be themselves, be aspirational and to feel that there is no role they can't do, nothing they can't achieve, if they put their minds to it. Our results speak for themselves. By that I don't just mean exam results; I mean the calibre of interesting, enterprising and effective young (and not so young now) women who are making a positive impact on the societies in which they live.

“Attitudes to the opposite sex and indeed one’s own gender are not influenced solely by school experience and to imply that respect for individuals and diversity only comes from a co-ed experience is misleading. We all know individuals whose attitude to the opposite sex is embarrassing, and they haven’t necessarily been to single sex schools. To suggest that girls from single sex school are disadvantaged, narrow minded or not tough enough is just wrong. They may not fall into either the classic ‘more macho than the men’ or the alternative ‘simpering miss’ categories: they are far more diverse. Recently a partner in a city law firm commented to me that he had found the most effective, determined and impressive women in his firm had invariably been educated in single sex schools. Who am I to argue with that?

"Promoting and celebrating diversity requires tolerance, understanding and appreciation of others’ perspectives. Surely Mr Cairns should be supportive and not feel threatened by us?"

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