High-flying schools put girls at greater risk of eating disorders

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The Independent Online

Girls at successful schools are more likely to succumb to anorexia than those who attend lower achieving colleges, a specialist in eating disorders claimed yesterday.

Girls at successful schools are more likely to succumb to anorexia than those who attend lower achieving colleges, a specialist in eating disorders claimed yesterday.

The "hothouse" atmosphere of leading schools makes the students feel under more pressure to succeed and can trigger eating problems.

Sandra Passmore, a specialist in eating disorders at Birmingham Local Education Authority, said: "I have worked in selective, non-selective and private schools throughout Birmingham and although there are problems in all types of schools, they are more marked in the most successful ones," she said.

"There are lots of factors that contribute to eating disorders but we know that being an anorexic takes a lot of discipline. Girls who are very academic can lose themselves in their work to take their minds off how hungry they are."

The most recent data on the number of anorexics among female students was gathered by the Eating Disorders Association in 1994. It found that there were one in 500 sufferers in state schools, one in 100 among girls at independent schools, one in 55 at university, and one in ten at dance and drama schools.

But a spokesman for the association said the numbers had probably doubled in each category over the past six years.

Diane Cook, a clinical nursing specialist at the Woodbourne Priory Hospital, in Birmingham, said she had counselled girls from some of the top public schools in the region who weighed just five stone. Pupils were under more pressure than ever to succeed and there was a dangerous link between academic excellence and the quest for an impossibly thin body, she said.

"Girls are working incredibly hard, far more so than boys and often harder than they actually need to," she said.

"Their whole self worth is based on academic success and I believe there is a connection between over-achievement and over-dieting."

Elspeth Insch, the head of King Edward VI Handsworth (Girls) School, Birmingham's highest achieving state school, said she believed up to 10 per cent of pupils had "lower level" eating problems which she defined as girls being thinner than they should be and regularly skipping meals. She blamed female peer pressure for the increase in eating disorders.

An added concern was that many of the students' parents were themselves successful professionals who worked long hours and did not have time to ensure their daughters ate a proper meal every night.

Felicity Lusk, the headteacher of the selective girls' independent secondary school, Oxford High, Oxfordshire, said: "We have always had a problem with girls eating.

"We have three or four girls in every year of 84 that we are actually working with, who are receiving medical attention, but we have quite a few we are concerned about. Many girls seem to flirt with anorexia. I have also spent 20 years in the state sector and I saw the same amount."

Dee Dawson, the medical director of Rhodes Farm, a specialist clinic for school-aged children with eating disorders in north London, said it was not the schools that caused the anorexia but the fact that girls who were already the type to fall ill often ended up at high-flying schools.

"They come from high-achieving families and have decided they must keep up with their parents or brothers and sisters and either the pressure is already there or they put it on themselves.

"There are always several other factors, such as parental neglect, abuse, divorce and so on, which trigger it, but they are also very disciplined and if they decide to diet they will stick to it."