Back to school: I wanted to study science, they taught me to cook

In 1977 Annalisa Barbieri went to Kathryn Blair's new school. The absence of boys did not mean she got a good education
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Twenty-two years ago I was preparing for my first day at Sacred Heart High School in Hammersmith. Elvis had just died and my royal blue uniform was hanging ready for me, my sister's name tag replaced by mine. I was proud to be going there. Sacred Heart is a beautiful school; the old part is all arched windows and cloisters and the walls are painted with the Stations of the Cross.

That it was a single-sex school did not enter my mind as an important issue. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if some of the things I think were wrong with my education were because it was a single- sex school and a convent school. I think the fact that I was female and Catholic were more catered for than my actual education.

It's all very well experts saying that girls do better at sciences without the intimidating presence of boys when science subjects are offered as a natural part of the curriculum. But while I made plenty of wall hangings and pin cushions, apple crumble and rough puff pastry I had to fight to take the three sciences at O-level. At that time, whether boys were there or not was immaterial; I just wanted the chance to study. That episode taught me that girls had to fight to do something scientific, and that it wasn't "the done thing". Slightly counterproductive to the whole single- sex ethos.

I guffaw when I read Jackie Lang, headteacher of Walthamstow Hall, saying that a girls' school is like a crash course in being top dog. At Sacred Heart, no one was allowed to be top dog. Even sports were team ones - tennis, netball, rounders - there was nothing that would let victory fall on one head alone. I didn't notice it then but individual characteristics were not nurtured; they were crushed.

Now I realise that our teachers couldn't encourage individual strengths or talents because there weren't the resources to deal with anything "off schedule". So we were triply damned: a single-sex environment and a strong religious bent in a state-funded school.

I would have loved to have learnt woodwork and metal work. Perhaps I would have been intimidated by boys but I would have coped. After all, there are boys in the outside world. But it was only when I left that I realised I was a technophile. We'd had 13 types of hessian, but no computers (this has now changed). Now I realise I would have excelled in these "boyish" subjects. Instead, I was left to dangle in that perennial slipstream of "could do better". The problem was that the subjects I "could have done better" in were not taught. There was no emphasis on "girly" subjects such as drama, art or music either. I wanted to keep up the violin, which I had been studying for five years, but there were no facilities.

Ours was the first comprehensive year and the staff were fanatical about keeping up grammar school standards. This they did by emphasising English and the classics. Modern languages other than French and German were not taught. When I wanted to study Italian at O- and A-level, I had to attend lessons outside the school, which I organised myself. This brought me into contact with boys. I passed my Italian A-level. but failed the other two in subjects I had studied in an all-female environment. But the presence of boys was immaterial, because I was studying something I wanted to rather than something that had been decided for me by virtue of my gender.

Not surprisingly, Religious Education O-level was compulsory and a great deal of energy expended on church, God and guilt. Boys did not feature highly; there was an air of "we get on fine without them". In the sixth form (now defunct) we started sharing certain lessons with boys from a single- sex Catholic school. I'm still not sure whether introducing us to boys at this crucial stage in our education - as we began A-levels - didn't actually wipe out any benefits that five years of segregation had yielded. I remember an almost audible explosion of hormones as the boys gathered outside our common room.

Would I send my child to a single-sex school? Most definitely not if it was also a convent state school. These schools live in the past at a time when the sexes were groomed for a different kind of life. But there is one point everyone is missing. In an environment where there are few resources, a strong bent towards one particular religion and the characteristics of one gender to cater for, the problem is not the pupils, but the teachers. It is they that get hot-housed and conditioned to react, and therefore teach, in a certain way. Single-sex schools might just be okay if the teachers broke with tradition and stopped being so obsessed as to whether they were teaching boys or girls. Because teaching a class of all girls, or boys, is not the problem. It's what, and how, you teach them that matters.