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Girls with Spanners

An article in the Times’ Weekend supplement on Saturday 16 September by an anonymous mother described how her daughter suffered horrifically from bullying at an all-girls’ boarding school. The school was not named and so had no right of reply, but the experience described appeared very real and there is no reason to believe that it is anything other than an accurate account.

What struck me most about the article was the way this unknown school reacted to allegations of bullying. I think they got it wrong in three ways, with devastating consequences for the girl involved.

First, it appears that central to the school’s approach was a desire to protect its reputation, even if this might be at the expense of a child’s wellbeing. I don’t think anyone would claim that such an approach is acceptable, but it is something which can easily happen and against which all schools must guard. Reputation is important to all schools and in an independent school it is central to success as a business. But this must never be at the expense of anyone’s wellbeing.

Secondly, the school seems to have tried to claim that there was no bullying at their school. I would urge any parent to steer clear of a school making such a claim. Bullying is unfortunately present in every school. It is more prevalent in some than others, and it is certainly more likely to be prevalent if a school denies its existence. Bullying must be tackled head on, by creating a culture which does not tolerate it and by confronting any issues which arise quickly and sensitively.

Finally, the school’s system for raising a concern or complaint, as it was described, appeared to be overly complicated. Certainly, there needs to be a process for escalating concerns and complaints, but when dealing with an allegation of bullying, a system which drags things out is wholly unacceptable. Such a system is not designed with the best interests of a bullying victim in mind.

The tone of the article appeared anti-boarding, though towards the end of the piece, the writer revealed that her daughter moved onto another boarding where she thrived. The implication was however, that it was the shift from single sex to co-education which led to the success. I would argue strongly that this is not the case. A single sex or a co-educational school is equally likely to harbour bullying, if it is not part of the school’s culture to not tolerate bullying and to confront it wherever it is found. I wouldn’t try to claim that all pupils are suited to single sex education. All independent schools are different and all pupils are different – what suits one pupil, will not necessarily suit another. This is the beauty of independent schools.

The perception can be that a girls’ school is a hotbed of bitchiness. My experience of all-girls’ education as both an educator and a father is entirely different from this mother’s. Like any good school, Truro High School does not claim it is entirely free from bullying and occasionally our pupils get things wrong. However, in my experience it is a place where strong friendships are formed, where there is mutual respect of and tolerance for one another, and where pupils willingly help and support each other. Girls’ schools are places where girls are able to be themselves without judgement from peers and where the social pressures of the co-educational environment melt away. Only last week I heard the Head Girl in assembly describing our school as a ‘family’.

Beyond this, there needs to be a recognition of what a girls’ school can do for a girl in terms of building her confidence and ensuring she really understands that any and every opportunity is open to her. We are free of the stereotypes which still infect the cultures of many co-educational establishments. We are free of the social pressures and the need to conform. We are the places which will ensure that the next generation will continue to break glass ceilings.

I witnessed all of this in action at the weekend as I went to support our Greenpower Car racing teams at the Castle Combe Circuit. Here were girls, ranging in age from 11 to 18, working together to ensure their racing cars performed to their optimum. There were girls in overalls, girls using spanners, girls testing batteries, girls discussing the finer points of wheel alignment with a former F1 Chief Engineer. And as girls in a girls’ school, they did this unencumbered of any pressures or stereotypes – in fact, blissfully unaware that in a co-educational environment they may have felt unable to take on this challenge. I was extremely proud of what I saw and I know the parents who were there felt the same.

So, don’t discount the huge benefits to an all-girls’ education. It has a lot to offer in the drive for true equality.

Published by: Dr Glenn Moodie
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