The Consistent Strength and Joy in Schools for Girls

In writing this article about the strengths of a single-sex education, in particular, one for girls, I am somewhat conflicted; not with the subject matter, but with the notion that I have to generalise for all children. I therefore wish to note at the start that the gender of the students is not the only, nor necessarily the most important factor, in school choice for an individual family. It is good to have single sex girls’, single sex boys’ and coeducational schools in our society. Individual students will flourish in different settings. This is also why it is good to have government, Catholic and independent schools. We need a variety of schools where young people can think freely, feel connected to others, where their own beliefs are valued, where they know a few friends, or where they can engage in different approaches to learning. I am very wary of the person who has a ‘one size fits all’ model. Parents are wise to select a school that suits their own child. It is also worth noting that in the best of schools things can go wrong. One factor does not ‘save the day’.

Having said this, I wish to note the great sense of joy I feel in being the Principal of PLC Sydney, a school with about 1530 girls, with ages ranging from four to eighteen. I will refer often in this article to my experience in being the principal of PLC Sydney, because this is what I know best. Whilst I have visited over two hundred schools, and have served as an educator in Junior and Senior schools and at university, at coeducational, boys’ and girls’ schools, I do not presume that PLC Sydney is the same as all other schools for girls. Still, there are commonalities.

The joy in a single sex school is in what is possible.

Every day I observe girls and young women really engaging with and enjoying their learning, without all of the implicit challenges that come to them when they learn alongside boys. I have also been the principal of a coeducational school, and I appreciated the benefits of that model. Yet I can say with surety that the amount of time girls spend on task, engaged in learning, able to take risks, is much greater in a single sex environment.

When it comes to girls accomplishing their potential there is no substitute for an all girls’ education. I could walk you through our school late on a Friday afternoon, and whilst there would be some tiredness, I am sure you would be impressed by the level of focus. Without boys about, it is my experience that the vast majority of girls and young women commit with an impressive level of consistency to their studies. This enables them to achieve better outcomes, in particular in STEM subjects. PLC Sydney sends many female engineers, mathematicians and scientists into our community. More girls select STEM subjects in a single sex environment.

Girls enjoy the collaborative, the creative and the ordered classroom. In a coeducational school, many will not be self-conscious in the presence of boys, but we should recognise that many will be. Free from feeling like they are in competition with boys, girls commit with gusto to Mathematics, English and Science, as well as to Drama, Speech, Art and Sport. Without the obligatory few boys who want to take the teacher’s attention with their humour or bravado, all different types of girls can take the lead in expressing themselves. I have found an abiding generosity exists at PLC Sydney. Academic notes are shared. Students help each other. I am sure principals of other girls' schools see these qualities in their schools too.

It is my view that the academic progress students make in years 9-10 that really sets them up for success later in their schooling and at university. Too often schools allow students to drift in these years. I saw this first hand when I visited hundreds of schools in the UK. This is the period when coeducational classrooms are at their most challenging. Everyone is in the long, dark tunnel of puberty, and students are looking for self-actualisation. Some find it in learning but many find it in impressing peers. Coeducational classrooms can become boisterous and boys are often at the centre of this.

In an all-girls school young women are given the opportunity to really deepen and broaden their learning at this important time. PLC Sydney utilises a strong enrichment program, an extensive co-curricular program, and we add the challenge of Cambridge courses from Year 9. The level of learning is very impressive. Girls can investigate and collaborate and try something new. It brings joy. It strengthens them.

I am sure my colleagues at boys’ school would say something similar. Boys’ only schools can set up their structures and priorities to help their students to flourish. Boys have particular needs and it is wonderful to have the availability of schools that specialise in their growth and development. As a society we want all young people to flourish.

On the sporting field and in the pool, without watching eyes, our young women give their all. Without an audience of male peers, they commit themselves to their football and hockey, diving and swimming, tennis and badminton.

When young women are at university, all of the above does not hold true. It is in the crucial late primary, and the early and middle years of senior school that these benefits are seen.

The academic results of all girls’ schools (and many boys’ schools) are evidence for the success of single sex models. Consistently students in all girls’ schools perform very well in external exams. And the learning isn’t shallow, ‘for the test’ learning. PLC Sydney is not an academic hot-house. Our students do very well at university. Our model is to provide a rich and broad education, with many opportunities for all of our students. This helps us limit rivalry and unhealthy competition. Other girls’ schools and other boys’ school have a similar model.

It is my experience that there is a consistent strength and joy in schools for girls.

The academic results of all girls’ schools are evidence for the success of single sex models. Consistently students in all girls’ schools perform very well in external exams. And the learning isn’t shallow. Our model is to provide a rich and broad education, with many opportunities for all of our students.

Dr Paul Burgis

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Dr Paul Burgis

PhD (UNSW), MEd, BEd, Dip Tch (Eng/His-sec), Dip Div/Miss

Dr Paul Burgis is the current Principal of the Presbyterian Ladies College, Sydney. Paul is married and has three daughters and lives in Drummoyne, Sydney. In his leisure time he enjoys reading history, theology, philosophy and poetry, supporting the Cronulla Sharks and wild bird photography. He worships with his family at Drummoyne Presbyterian Church.