My first experience of the benefits of single-sex schooling came when I was 11, when I moved from my local primary in Leicester – where the boys pulled my plaits and generally despised me – to a girls’ grammar school. A great sense of peace and tranquillity came over me: no more playground bullying and, all of a sudden, lots of like-minded girls to talk to and play with.
When I arrived at Oxford – in the days before co-ed colleges – I again relished the sense of calm and ability to concentrate that came with living and studying in a women’s college. There were plenty of young men climbing over the walls, so it was hardly a nunnery, but I was always able to find time and space for myself.
But it’s not just girls who can benefit from single-sex education. Tony Little, the headmaster at Eton, has just said that single-sex schools are of huge benefit to both boys and girls, allowing them to enjoy childhood for longer. Unsurprisingly, anything that keeps our otherwise ubiquitous atmosphere of precocious sexuality at bay for a few more precious years comes as a huge relief to parents, and they repeatedly tell me so. But an environment that nurtures the innocence of childhood is also incredibly important to the boys and girls themselves.
When I started to think about how I would like my stepdaughters and daughters to be educated, the obvious choices were all girls’ schools. They thrived from the age of five to 18 in a succession of schools such as Bute House, St Paul’s and South Hampstead High School. Even so, it was only in 2010, when I took up my role as chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust – a network of 24 schools and two academies educating 20,000 girls – that I specifically began asking myself the question: “Why single sex?”
Girls face huge pressures in their lives. They feel pressure to look beautiful, to perform well (and they are performing well, outstripping boys at every age and stage of education), to be talented and demonstrate their abilities under the watchful eye of peers and parents. In particular, they feel pressure to grow up – fast.
It is sad but true that being young and childish seems to fall out of favour by the age of 10. I remember one colleague, whose daughter, like me, had been at a mixed primary and then at a girls’ secondary, saying it was extraordinary how, after the move, the girl suddenly “didn’t need to wear nail polish for school any more”.