How all-girls’ schools are breaking the glass ceiling

The Educator Australia - by Brett Henebery 14 Mar 2022

On 8 March, International Women’s Day 2022 celebrated the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. And perhaps nowhere is more important to highlight these achievements than in girls’ schools, where the next generation of female leaders are being crafted.

Indeed, all-girls’ schools in Australia are hard at work making sure that young women not only understand their potential but are equipped to use it to effect change once they leave school and launch their chosen careers.

While reports have shown that single-sex schools are declining in Australia, and that some single-sex schools have transitioned to co-ed in recent years, a 2019 study found that all-girls school graduates are more likely to leave school feeling primed for success, and research published in 2021 revealed that girls who attend single-sex schools are generally more confident and emotionally in control than girls attending state and independent coeducational schools.

The most recent research in Australia demonstrating the benefits of single sex schools is the Youth Survey Report 2020, from Mission Australia, which found that girls at single-sex schools obtained higher scores than the female average in critical areas of physical and mental health, overall life satisfaction, and educational and career aspirations.

Empowering the next generation of female leaders
Speaking to the trend of schools turning co-ed, Methodist Ladies’ College (MLC) principal, Diana Vernon, said this started about 30 or so years ago in Australia and the decision to do so has been “financially motivated to remain viable”.

“Opening their doors to girls doubled their potential market; however, the schools themselves have not doubled in size,” Vernon said.

“What we have seen is that the addition of girls brought up the average academic achievements across many of these schools due to the positive impact girls have on boys’ behaviour and learning, but this is not mutual.”

Vernon said Melbourne is fortunate to have one of the highest per-capita number of girls schools than any other major city in the world.

“So, while co-ed schools, across all sectors, make up a larger part of the market, single sex schools remain a very popular alternative, that many families and educators recognise the benefits of, particularly for girls.”

“At MLC, there continues to be a strong demand for an all-girls environment that supports girls with the opportunities, confidence, resilience, and well-rounded education they need to break the mould, indeed, even break the glass ceiling for themselves and future generations of women.”

Single-sex schools: The key selling points
The Educator asked Vernon about what she believes to be the most convincing selling points for parents who are trying to decide on a single-sex or co-ed school for their child.

“First and foremost, parents need to select a good school – there are good and bad co-ed and single-sex schools. Parents should choose a school that aligns with their own family values and a school where their daughters will have every opportunity available to her,” she said.

“Whilst I might be biased, having run three vastly different single-sex girls' schools in the UK and in Australia, I see the overriding benefit of girls' schools as being environments in which girls can build their confidence in who they are and in what their interests are, without having to manage any additional challenges of gender stereotyping.”

Vernon said this is particularly relevant during their teenage years when girls are still working out who they are.

“When they have the freedom to be themselves, as we see time and again, they leave girls' schools with a solid foundation and confidence in who they are, ready to embrace the challenges of the wider world,” she said.

“I am reminded of a colleague of mine who used the metaphor of learning to sail – you wouldn't send a learner sailor out in a gale force or strong wind; you provide them with the skills and tools and help them develop their skills in calmer waters, before encouraging and supporting them in embracing the challenges of the choppier seas.”

‘Girls deserve to be unhampered by social pressures’
Vernon shared an anecdote from the London schools circuit, where a local prestigious boys’ school took girls for their final two years (helping to shore up their academic results), and a few of her students applied and were accepted.

“Both schools had the benefit of several high profile political and business speakers who would visit different. One such speaker commented to me how much he enjoyed visiting my school as my students asked such insightful and powerful questions,” she said.

“He also shared how disappointed he was to attend this prestigious boys’ school with the co-ed senior school, because the girls never asked questions, they sat back and let the boys ask the questions.”

Vernon said this disappointed her because she knew many of the girls at the co-ed school – most of whom were extremely able and engaged students. 

“They would undoubtedly have had to confidence, and the inclination to ask challenging questions of the speaker had they remained in an all-girls’ environment,” she said.

“I also always point out that this is not just my view and experience.”

Vernon says the best argument is ultimately that “girls deserve to be unhampered by social pressures, especially in the pursuit and attainment of their learning milestones and foundational learning and wellbeing experiences, as these set them up for life”.

“Our graduates, who go on to follow diverse, fulfilling and often ground-breaking career paths, are a testament to this fact.”

Related stories:
Girls who attend single-sex schools mentally tougher than co-ed peers – study
How to put your school in the top 10: a look at our great schools