Schools blame image-makers for diet problem

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The Independent Online

Education Editor

Growing numbers of girls in private schools are suffering from eating disorders such as bul- imia and anorexia, a leading girls' school headteacher said yesterday.

Penelope Penney, head of Haberdashers' Aske's Girls' School, Elstree, Hertfordshire, and president of the Girls' Schools Association, said: "More of our schools are having to deal with youngsters suffering from eating disorders than youngsters on drugs."

Speaking at the association's annual conference in London, she blamed advertisers for encouraging girls to believe they had to be as thin as stick insects to be attractive and loved.

"Advertisers should recognise that most of us grow up to be rather round and pear-shaped," she added.

Mrs Penney spoke of the pressures on girls which might lead to bulimia, compulsive eating, or anorexia. "They are under pressure for success at A-level. They are under pressure to get into university and then it is difficult for them to get jobs."

The pressure was made worse "by the appalling demands of advertising, the waif-like thinness of new models, the beginnings of anorexia".

Young people felt they had to conform to an image to be loved instead of learning to love themselves and be loved for themselves. That could lead to disorders such as bulimia.

Several of the association's 420 schools had counsellors who tried to nip problems in the bud.

The association also said yesterday that the Government should extend the assisted places scheme to younger pupils, to fulfil the Prime Minister's pledge to double it.

It urged ministers to ensure that more girls would get government-funded assisted places, which allow bright pupils from poor homes to attend private schools.

At present, assisted places are limited to pupils aged 11 and above and many more boys than girls receive help.

Ministers are considering lowering the age for assisted places to seven, as there is not enough demand among older pupils to double the scheme.

The heads said that Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, should relax the criteria schools have to meet before they are allowed to offer assisted places. That would allow girls' schools with small sixth forms to offer places. At present schools need a sixth form of 60 before they can take part.

Mrs Penney said: "One of the highly significant benefits of the assisted- places scheme is that it offers a choice of single-sex education for girls. More than a third of local authorities now have no single-sex provision for girls."

Labour has said it will abolish the scheme and girls' schools have begun fund-raising for scholarships for pupils who might then be unable to afford fee-paying education.

The heads said girls did better in all-girls schools: a 20-year study of co-education in the United States published last year showed that girls were constantly sidelined and silenced.

However, the latest statistics show that the number of girls in single- sex fee-paying schools has fallen by around 14,000 during the last decade.