'Girls learn so much better without boys'

Gillian Low, the new president of the Girls' Schools Association, tells Richard Garner why she supports single-sex education – and what she believes state schools can learn from the private sector
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Gillian Low could be accused of having had designs on her current job for years. She can recall, in the days when she was deputy head of a school near Lady Eleanor Holles school in Hampton, west London, looking the incumbent up in Who's Who? "I looked up her date of birth and worked out when she was likely to retire and wondered, would I be in with a chance then?" she says.

In the end, though, it was not such a calculated move. She spent several years as head of Francis Holland school in central London before finally taking over at Lady Eleanor Holles. Next week, though, she will move more into the national spotlight as she presides over the Girls' School Association conference, of which she is president.

She began her teaching career in the state sector in comprehensive schools in Sussex and outer London. "It wasn't a deliberate decision to move into the independent sector," she says. "I was at a very good comprehensive in Ruislip, west London. But I had three young children and the children needed to be taught within a certain radius of my home and the deputy headship [at Godolphin and Latymer school] came up."

She does not regret making the switch, though. "The most important difference was the degree of independence we had then," she explains. "It is not quite as different now as it was in 1998, though."

At that time the state sector was in the throes of grappling with the introduction of the national curriculum and she can vividly remember one of the teachers' union leaders – Sue Rogers, president of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers – trundling a mass of documents on to a trailer into her conference to depict the vast army of instructions showing teachers what they should cover in their classrooms. "One can see the reasons why the National Curriculum was introduced but I think it was overprescriptive at that stage," Low says, and she adds that the freedom she gained was very real.

Now, though, she can see some of those new-found freedoms extending to state schools – witness the Education Secretary Michael Gove's decision to allow them to choose the exams they believe best suit their pupils – the prime example of which is the introduction of the International GCSE, long considered by many in the independent sector as better preparation for their pupils for the A-level courses they will take.

That was one of the changes she introduced when she secured the headship of Lady Eleanor Holles school seven years ago. "It started here with maths," she says. "We just moved into English and English literature. It wouldn't surprise me if it grew. So much time was taken up with coursework with GCSE. The girls would spend weeks doing assignments when they could have been doing other things as well. It broke the mould."

The school had already established a good reputation for itself before her arrival. It had taken steps to modernise since the notorious era of the Fifties and Sixties, when it was ruled with a rod of iron by its former head, Miss Garwood Scott – who was immortalised in the film, An Education, which described the upbringing of author Lynn Barber, who is a former pupil of the school. "It was a different era – although any project that casts Emma Thompson as the head of this school is fine by me," she says.

Another innovation she has introduced is to bring in the house system. Previous education secretaries – notably Charles Clarke – have always looked to the independent sector as an exemplar for some of the reforms, such as the house system, they would like to introduce in state schools. There is evidence that it is catching on in state schools, too. However, this ignores the fact that – even in the private sector – it is mainly in boarding schools that it has flourished. Gillian Low is of no doubt of its value to her school. "We're talking about a real cultural change here," she says. "We introduced it to get more integration between different year groups – and give more opportunities for girls to take leadership roles and sit on committees. The more experience they get, the better.

"You have debating competitions, drama, sport and art competitions. I did wonder how much they would embrace it and how quickly any change that took place would happen. It happened straight away."

Lady Eleanor Holles school is in an exceptional education setting. Next door is Hampton School, the fee-paying school for boys, and down the road is the new Hampton Academy, one of the first state schools to be run by Kunskapsskolan, pioneers of the independent "free" school movement in Sweden. "Our boundaries back on to the boys' school and in Miss Garwood Scott's day there was a rule that the girls should not advance to more than a few metres away from them," she says. "There's no need for that now."

In fact, the school has good links with the local independent boys' establishment – mounting joint drama school productions and providing an almost unique education setting for parents whereby they can get single-sex schooling for their children but drop both sexes off almost at the same place every morning.

Not unnaturally for someone in her position, Low is a champion of single-sex educationl, which she believes is beneficial for girls. "I've worked in mixed schools but my experience in three girls' schools is that it [single-sex education] works well for girls," she says. "We're specialists in girls' education. We understand the way girls learn. In a girls-only environment, I've found that they're much more inclined to take intellectual responsibility and are much more inclined to stand up and make a contribution in class. This is a good thing because they're not thinking about what the boys' reaction will be."

Lady Eleanor Holles has also enjoyed close links with its neighbouring comprehensive school, Hampton Community School, which has now transformed itself into the Kunskapsskolan-run Hampton Academy. "We're hoping very much they will continue," she says. "We believe that they will. "We had a mentoring scheme with them [Hampton Community School] whereby girls from here went to mentor their borderline A*/A grade and C/D pupils at GCSE. It has worked brilliantly and it is genuinely a two-way process, because our girls get such a lot out of it in terms of confidence building."

The street in which the three schools reside has already been singled out by Vince Cable, the local MP, as a ground-breaking example of small scale co-operation between the private and state sector. Looking forward to her annual conference next week, she has secured a pledge from the Coalition Business Secretary that he will address it – a timely moment for him to be talking to an education gathering following the publication of the results of the inquiry by Lord Browne into student finance. He will be listened to with interest as he defends his proposals. Last month he pulled out of a meeting at Oxford University because of the threat of a student demonstration – no chance of that with the GSA.

"I think we're at a major crossroads now in education," says Ms Low, "and I think the things that are going on in the state sector do impact on us. I do feel there is a real political will to get to grips with some of the issues in education. The ones that really impact on us are to do with the curriculum and possibly moving back to a traditional two-year course at A-level."

Mr Gove, who has announced his intention of bringing universities back to the centre stage in setting A-levels, is expected to announce his plans in a soon-to-be-published White Paper. However, Mrs Low admits she is enamoured of some of the moves already made in A-level reform – such as the introduction of the thesis-style extended essay or project. "It is absolutely brilliant," she says. "It takes them [the pupils] on to the next stage as learners [preparing them for university]. They have done some amazing projects, like studying medieval Japan and looking at how autistic children were supported in schools in Surrey. Talk to girls about it and they absolutely light up."

The other major policy that will affect the private sector is the drive to give parents more choice in the state sector by creating more academies and setting up independent "free" schools run by parents, teachers or charities. As a champion of independent education, as you might expect, she is all for more choice "so long as it's not confusing".

As to its impact on the private sector, she says: "We're used to having to be good enough to compete for our pupils. It will be nothing new for us if that happens. It could be good for us."

GSA factfile

The Girls' School Association is a younger relation of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Association. It was founded in 1974.

GSA schools educate nearly 100,000 girls in day and boarding schools in England, Wales and Scotland.

In 34 local authorities in England, GSA schools offer the only single-sex provision for girls.

More than a quarter of all pupils in GSA schools receive some assistance with the fees charged by their schools.

Its predecessor, the Association of Head Mistresses, was founded in 1874 as the movement to promote girls' education was gathering momentum.

Headmistresses in those days sometimes felt that they lived in a strange state of isolation. As a result they thought it was important for them to meet and exchange views, in order to compare ideas and to act wisely to "address situations which had no precedent".