Head of Brighton College, Richard Cairns, has come out against all-girls’ schools, stating that these institutions produce young women who “may have a clutch of A*s and a first class degree but if they cannot meaningfully converse and communicate with male colleagues they will be at a huge disadvantage.”
Having spent five years in a sex-segregated school myself, I’d ask my colleague sitting next to me what he thinks, but the smell of his pheromones are so alien to me that they’re short-circuiting my linguistic abilities. C’est la vie.
I’m only teasing; I’d spoken to enough male family members and friends outside of school that by the time I got my first job and worked with male colleagues, I’d become accustomed to their strange manly ways.
I don’t believe that all-girls’ schools are outdated due to the effects that they have on the education and training of young women. Rather, the real menace is the damaging gender stereotypes they are built upon and serve to reproduce.
The practice of segregating the sexes in education comes into effect at the secondary level, when puberty apparently turns former playmates into potential teen pregnancy statistics.
My mother decided to enrol me in an all-girls’ school because it would keep me away from the dangers of the hormone-riddled, porn-addicted minds of teenage boys who would not be able to control their bestial impulses.
Put simply, the logic goes, men cannot control their desires around women - so women should take measures to protect themselves. In this case, my mother took the precaution of hiding her eleven-year-old, Harry Potter-obsessed, braced, acne-ridden, temptress child to a Roman Catholic all-girls’ school.
Equally, proponents of all-boys’ schools argue that girls will distract boys from their studies. We see this argument being used to defend all male sports and women not being allowed to serve as part of infantry troops. Women will cause distraction and disruption to tasks requiring close bonding and team work, as men are unable to control their base desires.
In everyday life, this is the same logic used to police women’s clothing and behaviour across cultures and to excuse male behaviour, not least in cases of sexual violence.
Conversely, rather than protecting young women, sex-segregated schools remove the opportunity for young people to talk about sexual respect and consent in mixed environments.
A prime example of this comes in the form of the English Literature classes, where I had the privilege to study Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy, not once, but twice. For some reason my English teacher really felt that the message of a young virgin farm worker’s life being torn apart by rape was a lesson of great importance to us girls.
These discussions involved the themes of sexual consent, female sexuality and emancipation. All conversations that we sixteen-year-old girls would have benefited from having with male classmates in a safe space. Instead these conversations inevitably happened with boys, at a later date, in more pressured environments.
There is a quote from this novel that resonates with me. When confronting her mother after her rape, Tess says: “Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance of discovering in that way; and you did not help me!”
We had novels to guard us against these wiles, but not the real lived experience of speaking to boys our own age – and preventing them altogether.
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