Interview: Donna Stevens, Girls’ Schools Association

The new chief executive at the Girls’ Schools Association is on a mission to break down myths surrounding girls’ schools

What has your experience been like so far at the Girls’ Schools Association?

In a word, inspiring. It’s clearly been a very turbulent time in education, but I have been blown away by the resilience and determination of our schools to navigate and adapt to the current environment in order to achieve the best outcomes for the 84,000 pupils they collectively educate. GSA heads are so collaborative. In times like this we have to come together. 

What will you be doing in your role?

The GSA represents 146 girls’ schools and I feel that not enough is known about the benefits of the girls’ school sector. I think it is widely known that girls in girls-only schools do better academically, but less known that they are significantly more likely to study traditionally male-dominated subjects. 

For example, girls who attend girls’ schools are twice as likely to study maths and physics at A-level and 50% more likely to study the other sciences. Research also shows that girls in girls’ schools are more confident and emotionally in control than girls in any other type of school. I think people often think the opposite is true. 

I’d really like to break down those myths and promote the excellent work of GSA schools, and in fact all girls’ schools. 

What was it about GSA that made you take the job?

I previously worked at the Independent Schools Council (ISC) leading their research department and so I was fortunate to work very closely with GSA. When I was ready for a new challenge, the role at GSA came up and it was a no-brainer for me. 

The GSA represents 146 girls’ schools, including Queen Anne’s School in Caversham


What was your favourite subject at school?

Can I have two? Maths and drama. I actually did two and a half A-levels in maths and went on to study maths at Oxford University. But I always had a love of drama and singing; I did a lot of performing arts growing up. I feel this made me a well-rounded person and I’m a strong believer in the arts for developing confidence and basic skills such as public speaking.

What are you currently reading?

Do you want the honest answer? I wish it was something terribly highbrow, but it’s Warren Gatland’s autobiography. I’m more dipping in and out of it than properly reading. I bought it for Christmas for my dad, who is an even bigger Welsh rugby fan than I am. I’m reading it at bedtime with my son, who is also a keen rugby player. He’s inspired by one of Warren’s favourite players of all time – Shane Williams – who, like my son, is very small for a rugby player.

Read Jo Sharrock’s (Shrewsbury High School) blog on why girls-only education matters

What issue in education are you most passionate about?

I think it would have to be making sure children are given the opportunities and life chances that are undoubtedly out there. Working with girls, that’s often about opening up their eyes to subjects they may not have considered before or enabling them to meet or hear people talking about jobs which didn’t even exist a generation ago. For many GSA schools this is also about working in partnership with state schools, sharing opportunities and pooling ideas for the benefit of all the children in an area. I’ve been really heartened to see these relationships continuing during the pandemic.

If you weren’t in the education sector, what would you do instead?

At the weekend I run a performing arts school for 100 pupils, including my own three children. I have six wonderful teachers who help me to do that and it’s such an uplifting place to be on a Sunday. So I guess if I wasn’t in education I would probably be doing more of that or something in the performing arts world. 

Having gained considerable insight into the issues surrounding the independent education sector at the ISC, was there anything that surprised you?

Yes! The whole concept of girls-only schools. I went to a co-ed comprehensive school in south Wales and grew up knowing very little about the sector or the idea of single-sex education. But my eyes were truly opened at ISC. I was blissfully unaware of the benefits. I happened to do well academically, but many of my peers did not, despite having the potential, and I do wonder how different the outcome might have been for these fellow pupils had they attended a GSA school.

Donna Stevens has a degree in mathematics from the University of Oxford and a post graduate diploma in educational and social research from UCL. She has worked in strategic consultancy and has experience in the social sector. Donna was previously head of research for the Independent Schools Council. She joined the Girls’ Schools Association in January 2021.

You might also like: Interview: Helen Jeys, Manchester High School for Girls

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