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Girl power! Are single sex schools the answer?

It's the ultimate education dilemma: single-sex or co-ed? We sat down with Queen Anne's new Head to get the lowdown on why she thinks single-sex is more relevant for girls.

Elaine Purves joined Queen Anne’s in January and although she has barely had enough time for the ink to dry on the new school stationary, she has been busy getting to know the pupils, staff and parents. This is her fourth headship and Elaine comes with a wealth of experience spanning co-ed and all girls’ environments. She has joined Queen Anne’s from St John’s International School in Belgium, was previously Head of Rossall School and Ipswich High School for Girls. Prior to that, she was Deputy Head at the Royal High School, Bath and GDST. Having worked in both camps, who better to quiz about which educational setting is best. Single sex or co-ed? Join the Muddy debate…

ELAINE PURVES AQUEEN ANNE'S HEAD

You’ve just moved from a co-ed international school – so why do you think single sex for girls is the smart choice?

I have always been an advocate for equality of opportunity and have aimed to achieve that in all of the schools that I have worked. In some ways, single sex schools are more relevant than ever before. Looking back to my teenage years, I genuinely thought we wouldn’t be worrying about issues of sexism and inequality by the time I was a mum myself. Sadly, improvements in equality have stagnated – and in some respects have even gone backwards. Social media influences are hugely problematic for all young people in terms of identity, stereotyping and equality. I’m fully committed to girls’ education and empowering girls to make their mark. There’s a place for girls to grow in self-confidence, self-belief and the drive to take on the world.

In which case, have you put your own theory to the test with your own children?

My daughter has been in both girls’ schools and co-ed schools and has benefitted at different points in her development from both. Really it’s about individual choice and finding the right school for each child. My daughter definitely found her voice and her sense of purpose through her experience in an all-girls’ setting and I am very proud of her.

QAS Caversham girl operating a camera for media studies

With gender fluidity so often in the headlines now, is it even relevant to argue the case for single sex or co-education now?

Absolutely. The hot topic in today’s society is often ‘choice’, making the option of single-sex incredibly relevant. Families and young people should be able to choose the right school, with the right culture, for their child. Girls’ schools foster a culture of openness and acceptance that can really allow individuals to be themselves and thrive at such an important time in their development.

QAS CAVERSHAM GIRLS ON THE LACROSSE FIELD

You’ve been in situ as the Head of Queen Anne’s in Caversham for just one term. How are you finding it?

We moved back to the UK at the end of 2021 – not a small undertaking moving from Europe post-Brexit! It really was a ‘fast start’ jumping into the role in the middle of the school year. During my first term, I have thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in school life and finding out what makes the school tick. I have already dubbed Queen Anne’s ‘the tardis’ as it is truly mind-blowing how much goes on here – the opportunities for the girls are phenomenal.

I have also really enjoyed talking to students, staff, parents, governors and alumnae; we have an incredible community of people. I love the energy, vibrancy and calm sense of purpose that abounds. Lacrosse has been quite a revelation! It is very exciting to watch and I loved seeing our girls compete with such passion and skill. I do think lacrosse plays a part in nurturing our girls’ strong spirits!

QAS CAVERSHAM GIRL PLAYING THE PIANO

I’ve been to several single sex schools where there’s much effort being made in listening to girls, understanding and respecting them. Is that enough?

Regardless of gender, as a society, we need to address how we talk to each other, behave, interact, express thoughts and feelings, develop relationships and love for each other. There’s a lot to work through and schools play a large part in developing in young people the skills, attributes and qualities to be a responsible adult. But social media, employers and governments need to play their part too. As a society, people of all ages are increasingly feeling empowered and able to speak out if they see or experience something they don’t feel comfortable with – and that’s a good thing.

QAS Caversham girls using tablets in the classroom

One of the biggest arguments for single sex learning is that boys and girls learn differently – by keeping schools single sex, your child will benefit from highly personalised, effective education. Would you agree?

Girls schools are tailored so that girls can really throw themselves into school life. An all girls’ environment offers myriad opportunities and absolutely nothing is off limits in terms of curriculum. To ensure each pupil reaches her full potential, we do things differently to suit the learning and development style of girls.

What’s not often talked about is the huge amount pressure that girls can put on themselves. With this in mind, we are able to tailor our monitoring and tracking in a girls’ school, giving the students enough feedback to reach their full potential but not so much that they start to obsess. We talk to the girls about not always needing perfection to be successful and creating a positive culture around doing well. This gives a sense of academic liberation and consequently girls fly academically – our phenomenal value added scores at GCSE and A Level are testament to that.

By offering an all girls’ environment, our students are learning all the time how to achieve a positive balance in their lives. Our girls embrace a wide range of extra-curricular activities including sport, music, drama, creative and outdoor pursuits, but they also have time just to be, to enjoy the company of friends. Now, more than ever, as our young people emerge from the pandemic with the wisdom that has bestowed upon them, we owe our young people the space, the inspiration and the environment to flourish.

Elaine Purves, Head of Queen Anne’s Caversham. The next Open Day is on Saturday 7 May, register your interest here.

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