UK Headmaster’s Girls-Only School Comments Stir Debate

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Richard Cairns, the head of Brighton College in East Sussex, England, one of the most renowned co-ed private boarding schools in the UK, has stated that girls at single-sex schools may make excellent grades but are “at a huge disadvantage” because they do not have the opportunity to talk to boys.

The BBC’s Judith Burns reports that the headmaster added that single-sex schools create a “deeply unrealistic world.” However, the Girls’ Schools Association (GCA) called his opinions old-fashioned. Girls-only school supporters note that students at their schools perform better and are more likely to take male-dominated coursework, such as math classes.

But Cairns countered by saying that girls at his school were not intimidated by having boys in their classes and pointed out that the school’s female pupils achieved top scores in allegedly male-dominated subjects like physics, and many continued to study math and science at Oxford or Cambridge.

He continued by stating that boys in single-sex schools create false hierarchies based on which boys are on the first-line rugby team, for example. Girls, when they only have female peers, suffer emotional intensity that is likely to result in bullying.

In a co-educational setting, he opined to Independent School Parent, there is a place for everyone, and girls and boys “can be themselves.” But Caroline Jordan, president of the Girls’ Schools Association, disagrees, explaining that female-only schools repeatedly perform at a high level by independent school standards and have for decades.

“It may also have escaped his attention that all-girls schools provide plenty of appropriate opportunities for interaction with boys; in fact, it is rather old-fashioned to assume anything other.”

She also referred to recent Institute of Physics research that shows that girls in same-sex schools were more likely to study A-level physics than females in co-ed private schools.

Adam Boult, writing for The Telegraph, reports that Cairns believes the boys and girls at Brighton find learning together the norm. He sees them helping each other in their studies and growing from the interaction of both genders. Their congeniality and sharing of the “growing up” process makes each sex understand the other more fully.

The GSA argued that not only do young girls have uncles, brothers, fathers and other males in their lives, but they also have appropriate interaction with boys frequently. The association added that GSA alumna would be insulted at the suggestion that they might have a problem communicating with men in the world of business.

Cairns, says the Independent’s Richard Garner, responded:

“There is a sense that people respect and even admire each other for their achievements,” he added. “Perhaps that is why we are lucky enough to produce male dancers representing the country in summer 2016 at the Dance World Cup as well as female cricketers who play (at) county and national level.”

The reason girls at all-female schools perform so well in traditionally male subjects, suggests Cairns, is that these are very talented young women at extremely selective schools, reports The Huffington Post UK. Cairns proposed that:

“Bright girls are more likely to study physics than those of average ability. Whether they are sharing classes with boys is largely irrelevant.”