There is a dichotomy within the education system between having to be compliant and nurturing verve and spirit. Compliance is perceived as the bedrock of a harmonious school, where rules are followed, teachers are heeded and order reigns. However, verve and spirit reside in an inquisitive mind – one that questions decisions, seeks alternative solutions, and is self-assured.
These are immensely important character traits for everyone, but especially for women, to carry into the world beyond school – a world in which success may depend on being able to query judgments made by people in more senior positions, actively engage with conflict, negotiate pay rises and stand up for their rights.
Staff provide the opportunities for safe challenge and engagement with conflict; this in turn builds self-confidence and the circle continues. By modelling constructive conflict via debates or discussions in class, all pupils learn how to respect differing viewpoints. Once a pupil feels safe and valued they will express their opinions – in fact, try stopping them!
Heathfield students had a unique opportunity to voice their opinions and participate in lively political debate earlier this year when our school hosted BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions?’ presented by Jonathan Dimbleby. It was an inspiring experience and an excellent way to foster compassion, empathy and understanding by building respect for oneself and others.
It does come naturally to all pupils – provided they feel the environment is a safe one in which to express themselves; after all, they open up to their friends every day. There are two sides to this; on the one hand it is about finding one’s own voice and putting forward one’s own opinion, but it is also really valuable for them to try out different, more outrageous opinions, just for the sake of it.
This removes the emotion from the discussion and it is a wonderful moment when a young person realises that they can express and support the most extraordinary views and hear arguments back which are not to be taken personally. It is vital that we provide those opportunities for all pupils, not just girls.
At Heathfield, for example, students expressed that they were not keen on an initiative that was proposed. They agreed to a trial period for a week, and then gave well-considered reasons for their objections as well as positive and constructive suggestions as to how to achieve the same aims in a different way. A mutually acceptable solution was reached. To understand how to engage constructively as a teenager and change the world around one for the better is a valuable lesson for life – not just for school.
Coeducational schools need to do this just as much, or even more, than girls’ schools. In coeducational schools it is really important that young women are supported and brought forward. Academic research[ii] has shown that during public questioning, if a woman asks the first question, the other women in the room are two and a half times more likely to ask subsequent questions than if a man kickstarts the discussion. Given this coefficient, it is absolutely vital that women are asked questions first to create the same equality of opportunity as men.
As educators we must recognise and emphasise that girls’ schools are not just positive forces for women, but positive forces for change. Our education system must prepare women for business by providing a sense of authenticity, empowerment and ‘get up and go’, which may mean questioning our own understanding of compliance. Students who have a ‘disruptive streak’ will also possess strength of will and self-belief – critical qualities in tomorrow’s leaders; how can we harness it?
[i] Hattie, J. A.C. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge. https://visible-learning.org/2009/02/visible-learning-meta-study/
[ii] Alecia J. Carter , Alyssa Croft, Dieter Lukas, Gillian M. Sandstrom. ‘Women’s visibility in academic seminars: Women ask fewer questions than men.’ PLOS ONE (2018). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0202743