Q&A: Matters of perception

Girls’ Schools Association president, Caroline Jordan, talks to editor Stephanie Broad about the state of girls’ education today

Q. Congratulations on becoming the new president of GSA. What does the post involve?

A. Being president of the GSA involves representing the interests of our members, more than 150 independent girls’ schools across the UK, in a variety of settings on a national platform. This could mean sitting in on an internal committee about exam marking, speaking at a seminar on encouraging sport in girls’ schools or working behind the scenes with the executive director and the ISC to make sure that the government is well informed about the independent sector. It also means fielding calls from the media about anything from single-sex education to getting more girls to study STEM subjects. One of the tasks I am most looking forward to is hosting the GSA annual conference in November and delivering the opening speech. 

Q. As the single-sex vs co-ed debate continues, do you think girls’ schools have a public perception to address?

A. Yes and no. On the one hand, we’re all busy running schools and teaching children and this will continue to be our most important role – we don’t spend our days wringing our hands about public perception. If we provide the girls in our charge with the first-rate education they deserve, that in itself goes a long way to address perceptions. On the other hand, it is extremely disappointing that some people continue to harbour these outdated notions when the truth is that girls’ schools today are a million miles away from the stereotype. We do what we can to correct some of the wilder inaccuracies about single-sex education, but ultimately we are here to give girls the best possible education on offer. And of course our results speak for themselves. 

Q. Are we likely to see more girls’ schools switch to co-ed?

A. I think it is unlikely we will see this in any great numbers, but it depends very much on how the economy fares over the next few years. The main driver for girls’ schools taking in boys or merging with a fellow girls’ school is an economic one. Our members already include schools which provide a predominantly girls-only environment with boys in the nursery or sixth form and some which have equal numbers of boys but separate classrooms between the ages of 11 and 16. I firmly believe there will always be a significant number of girls for whom a single-sex environment is best.  

Q. At the 2015 GSA conference, getting girls into top jobs was top of the agenda. What are the important issues to be aware of this year?

A. I think we need to acknowledge that we have a new gender stereotype at work and that is that “girls who study science enter the medical profession”. UCAS statistics show that more than 80% of those studying medicine and allied subjects at university were women. There remains a huge disparity in gender take-up of certain subjects. In GSA schools, we have no shortage of girls taking STEM subjects at A level. Many of them use those skills to pursue careers in medicine. However, in computer science and engineering, more than 85% of those studying those subjects are male. Why so few young women? 

I fear in some instances this is a case of ‘playing it safe’. Recent research by Oxford University found that girls had an ‘”unconscious bias” towards more traditional roles and that, instead of chasing the big salaries, they sought job security and causes they cared about. This needs to change. We need to ensure that girls are not self-limiting, that they know there are no ‘male’ or ‘female’ careers – all possibilities are up for grabs. That’s why the GSA is a supporter of the WISE Campaign’s new careers resource, ‘People Like Me’, which aims to help girls picture themselves in a wide range of science roles. We’re also in the early stages of a new initiative with Siemens which will encourage girls to consider engineering as a career and which will be rolled out to GSA and neighbouring state schools around the country. 

Caroline Jordan is president of the Girls’ Schools Association W: gsa.uk.com

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