Inspiring confidence in girls
– Dr Felicia Kirk, Headmistress of St Mary’s Calne
It is an obvious but crucially important point that girls need confidence to do well. I have long held the belief that confidence plays a pivotal role in unlocking girls’ potential. In fact, it matters just as much as knowledge, skills and competence. However, it was not until I read Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s article, The Confidence Gap (http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/04/the-confidence-gap/359815/), that I understood the full extent of this issue. Kay and Shipman argue convincingly that there is a serious crisis of confidence for women in our time which hugely limits potential – it effectively leads to inaction and stifles progress.
Research in the field of neuroscience has shown that both brain chemistry and social conditioning mean that, generally, girls lack confidence in comparison to boys. A boarding school provides a perfect environment for girls, a holistic education where they can be challenged and offered opportunities to grow and fulfil their potential, becoming more confident as they do so. Sport plays a pivotal role in this and studies have shown that girls who play team sports are more likely to graduate from university, find a job and be employed in male-dominated industries. Sadly, girls are still six times as likely as boys to drop out of sports teams during their adolescence. Sport England have recognised this issue and in October 2014 launched ‘This Girl Can’ – a national campaign to inspire more women and girls to participate in sport.
Here at St Mary’s Calne, we encourage competition via a huge range of competitive sports – lacrosse, netball, athletics, tennis, swimming, hockey, fencing, to name just a few – and we offer sport at all levels. The girls learn to own victory and survive defeat in sport, and this is excellent training for owning triumphs and surviving setbacks at work. Sport helps them to build their self-worth, determination and resilience.
It is not just on the sports field that their confidence grows. At St Mary’s we have a unique relationship with RADA and offer the Sixth Form girls a RADA Advanced Communication Course ‘Speak Out!’. The programme offers classes in individual vocal and physical techniques, as well as classes ranging from political oratory and speaking with passion on emotive issues. All visiting practitioners on the course are RADA experts whose career profiles include the training of legal, medical and business professionals as well as people in the civil service and government. One of the girls who completed the course last year commented, ‘we agreed we started the course as curious girls but left it as confident career women, ready to take on anybody in the city!’ Girls also have the opportunity to increase their confidence and leadership skills through the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, Model United Nations and the Young Enterprise programme.
No ‘stereotypically’ boys subjects
Some of these programmes are also available to girls at co-educational schools; however, there is a difference as at single-sex boarding schools, the girls have all these opportunities open to them, they are not deterred from choosing subjects or courses which are seen as ‘stereotypically’ boys subjects and they are not distracted by the presence of boys. In research conducted by Mungo Dunnett Associates (involving 47 independent girls’ schools and 250 parents) one of the key reasons cited by parents for choosing a single-sex school was the issue of how the presence of boys can impact on a girl’s self-confidence: ‘she had a huge confidence boost when she arrived and didn’t have to worry about her appearance.’
Former St Mary’s Calne girls have referred to the importance of learning how to be confident at school and have attributed this to their later success in life. Last year, former Calne girl and Olympian, Laura Tomlinson MBE (née Bechtolsheimer) came back to St Mary’s to talk to the girls. Laura, who won a team gold and an individual bronze medal in dressage at the London Olympics, told the girls ‘the support and security I got at St Mary’s Calne gave me the confidence to go and do what I did later on.’
A key factor in encouraging confidence in girls, is encouraging them to take risks, to speak out and not to be afraid of getting things wrong. The one-to-one tutor system we have here focuses on personalised learning and ensures that each individual receives the attention they need. Being a boarding school, the girls have access to teachers out of hours and this support system is key in helping them to achieve their personal goals and to encourage them to aim high. In a recent inspection report, it was noted that ‘the girls ask interested, informed questions and are unafraid to challenge or to offer a slightly unconventional answer… Deep learning is developed by asking girls to explain concepts to the class, and teachers encourage the girls to evaluate their own work and that of their peers.’ Being unafraid and taking these ‘risks’ whether in the classroom or on the sports field, is an important skill for a girl to learn. Confidence is not something that develops overnight, but I truly believe that girls at a single-sex boarding school are in the best place to learn how to become stronger, how to challenge and speak out and not to be afraid of making mistakes. This will serve them well as they move on to university and into their careers. As Katty Kay and Claire Shipman correctly point out following their extensive research, ‘success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence.’
Dr Felicia Kirk has been Headmistress at St Mary’s Calne for over four years and is a passionate advocate for girls’ education. She has more than 20 years’ experience of teaching and managing at a senior level in independent day and boarding schools in the UK (Ipswich High School for Girls where she was Head of Sixth Form, Director of Higher Education at Wycombe Abbey and Head of Modern Languages at Royal Hospital School, Suffolk). An American citizen, Dr Kirk was educated in Maryland, USA and has a BA Summa Cum Laude in French and Latin (University of Maryland), an MA in French Studies with Latin (Brown University, Rhode Island) and a PhD in Romance Languages and Literature. Dr Kirk is a keen equestrian and, along with her husband John and their dog Lily, she also enjoys the English countryside.