I remember I once read an article written by someone who went to the same school as I did. It was essentially championing single-sex education, especially girls’ schools. I remember a lot of the things she described, like the constant “Was it full of lesbians?” question from outsiders. I have seen the inflatable man-doll that made occasional appearances at end-of-year assemblies; he was called Raymond (he was actually the inspiration for a character in Olive) and was rumoured to be living in the sports cupboard for years afterwards. The atmosphere of the yearly dance competition did indeed resemble that of Carl Orff’s ‘O Fortuna’ or one of Hieronymus Bosch’s visions of Hell. But I also remember that, for me at least, going to a girls’ school had little to nothing to do with learning how to be a ‘strong woman’. For me at least, several aspects of being in a girls’ school were really bloody awful.
First there was this claim that girls make each other better simply by being around each other. Really? Because whilst I agree that girls sometimes learn better in single-sex education, they don’t so much ‘make each other better’ as spend a great deal of their time doing whatever it takes to tear each other down. I had always had problems understanding my fellow schoolgirls, even if I didn’t particularly struggle socially in primary school, but I could never have anticipated what was in store for me at the grammar school where I genuinely believed I would find like-minded, academically oriented people. During my first few years of secondary school, I can remember variously being barricaded in a crowded classroom by a group of girls, locked out of a window so that the only way out was to force my way through a thick, prickly hedge (being filmed on a camera phone, obviously), and being a general figure of fun for certain classmates who seemed to think that I and the few other girls like me existed only to be the butt of their jokes. I was criticised for everything from my taste in music to my facial expressions.
Whilst this experience taught me a few things about how cruel teenage girls can be socially, I struggle to see where the ‘mak[ing] each other better’ aspect comes into this. Girls didn’t even really seem to help each other when it came to academics, either. I remember a lot of classes that essentially consisted of teachers telling girls over and over again to stop talking, their pupils never really seeming to grasp the concept that to interrupt classes with incessant chatting could be construed as selfish. Group work was essentially made up of the most studious girl in the group being forced to do all the work out of necessity whilst the others amused themselves with make-up or more gossip. And I remember how it felt to experience such a complete and total rejection whilst lacking any ability to understand why. If you attend a school full of teenage girls, there is absolutely no opportunity to be different. I was never keen to publicise the fact that I was reading Dickens or Chaucer rather than the standard ‘Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging’ or ‘The Fault in our Stars’, or to admit to enjoying the music of Tallis or Byrd rather than the latest pop releases, but sometimes I stopped caring. I wasn’t particularly ashamed or bothered by the consequences, but there were a lot of things I just liked to keep to myself. There comes a point when you eventually just withdraw and admit defeat. By the start of my GCSEs I didn’t care about friends, and would only rediscover my academic interests when I began my A-Levels.
Speeches from alumni at Founders’ day were not inspiring. They were boring. There’s really no other way of putting it. In fact, some were borderline more boring than listening to our head teacher read the seemingly endless lists of names, or hearing the Senior Team’s attempt to make the yearly House reports humorous by reciting them in barely-functioning rhyming couplets (you know the sort of thing: forcing ‘laugh’ into a rhyme with ‘heart’ and hoping everyone is in such hysterics from your clever puns and witty hand gestures that they don’t notice). After you spend seven years being told on a daily basis how being a woman is not an impediment to success, the words start to lose all meaning, and it becomes one of those slightly irritating but ubiquitous things you blindly accept as part of the background, like dead flies on a window sill or that toilet cubicle that’s always out of order.
Being in houses named after ‘important women’ was also not inspiring. My experience of the House system consisted of sitting through weekly House assemblies in which forms would take turns having to come up with some form of presentation with that week’s inspiring quotation as the theme. Usually this was done by one or two girls the night before the assembly; makeshift dramatic sketches were churned out, or lines of copy-and-pasted Wikipedia entries to be read out monotonously by several people, as if to give the illusion that the information came from multiple reliable sources. Whatever would meet the lower end our teachers’ expectations, basically. Afterwards, everyone would practically fall asleep whilst our Head of House, whose enthusiasm was always inversely proportionate to everyone else’s, discussed a recent fundraising event that was so beyond the radar of most girls there that they probably didn’t even remember that it was their House that had arranged it. I doubt anything connected with the House system would be enough to get those girls motivated. Not that I can make assumptions, of course. Maybe they were yawns of appreciation.
Unlike many critics of single-sex education, I don’t subscribe to the assumption that students of such regimes will grow up incapable of interacting with members of the opposite sex. The primordial scenes on our shared school bus provided copious evidence to the contrary. Despite being highly introverted myself, I found men much easier than women to become friends with at university. I also can’t lie and say that I hated my school. Despite being miserable for the first part, I ended up loving school. So yes, I agree that going to a girls’ school can be beneficial for academic learning, particularly if you’re the sort of girl who’s intimidated by the apparently more aggressive nature of boys. Just don’t underestimate how cruel girls can be. Go if you wish to, but if you’re hoping to be eccentric or different, don’t even touch it with a bargepole.