This year, Malvern College celebrates 25 years of co-education and I’ve been thinking hard about the conditions girls need to thrive and take their place on equal terms with their male counterparts. I’m a passionate educationalist and feminist and to me co-education is a crucial part of preparing girls (and boys) for the world of work and life outside the school bubble. In many single-sex schools with incredibly focussed girls achieving high academic grades and fantastic sports results but also developing a form of tunnel vision, always competing and highly stressed.
The way co-education is organised in a school like Malvern College seems to me a better model. Around 80% of our 630 pupils are boarders, just under half of them girls and each boarding house is single-sex which gives a close-knit family feel and fosters inclusivity – crucial with over 30 different nationalities here and a wide range of family backgrounds. We have no central dining facilities – strange for a school of this size – and staff and pupils eat together in their own houses, building close relationships and friendship groups. The rest of school life, lessons, co-curricular activities and even some sports teaching at junior level, is mixed.
At Malvern I’m proud of how we buck the trend, partly through giving our girls inspirational female role models
To me this is a win-win: the girls enjoy the privacy and stability of a single sex family setting in their houses (including many teachers’ dogs!) but work and play in the normal mixed environment they’ll encounter in the world outside. All this builds confidence and security among our girls.
Despite the breaking of glass ceilings, in society as a whole girls are worryingly under-represented in some areas. For my thesis, I’m examining why fewer girls do Economics than boys. 25 years ago, girls were far more likely to do Home Economics than Economics proper: when I began studying it, an old lady at my church said “You must be a great cook”! Luckily, that’s now changing but old attitudes die hard. Recent national statistics from UCAS show that twice as many boys, 16,000 each year, take Economics at A2 compared to just 8,000 girls, though the girls, on average outperform the boys, maybe because of the slightly more balanced, mature way they study.
At Malvern I’m proud of how we buck the trend, partly through giving our girls inspirational female role models: our multi-talented Director of Sport, Chey West, Natalie Watson, our Head of Science, many of our HoDs and our Senior Deputy Head Sarah Angus, an Economist and Cambridge graduate.
Here, girls are taking the lead, holding some of our top jobs, knocking on doors and asking questions in ways that would have been unthinkable two decades ago
We also fire their imaginations, showing them that even the most challenging jobs are within their grasp. I recently took our top female would-be Oxbridge students to a ‘Women in Economics’ conference at Caius College, Cambridge and they came back buzzing with excitement. Tellingly the pupils who’ve approached me to do extension work, bring in speakers or start new societies, most recently ‘Women in Science/STEM’, have all been female. Here, girls are taking the lead, holding some of our top jobs, knocking on doors and asking questions in ways that would have been unthinkable two decades ago.
Teenagers, particularly girls, are under huge pressures these days, through high expectations and the stress of ubiquitous social media and every school faces problems like anxiety, self-harming and anorexia. However, our outstanding pastoral care and the Community Action and Service programme, central to Malvern life and compulsory for the IB which half our pupils take, broadens their attitudes and helps them get their lives in perspective.
All this feeds into our central mission: making our girls genuinely believe they can live happy, balanced lives and be whatever they want to be whether that’s playing cricket for England, becoming a top scientist, or even an economist at the World Bank.
For more information, visit Malvern College’s website.