Questions to ask your daughter
Sylvia Brett, Principal of Harrogate Ladies’ College
Ask your daughter if she has ever worried about posing a question in class for fear of what the boys will say or whether she has been anxious about making a mistake because she should have known better and can only expect ridicule from her peers. Ask her if she thinks that some subjects are for boys and that she might be considered unusual to want to study them. Ask her if she worries about what to wear in the morning and how much she feels that she needs to wear makeup – even subtly – in order to maintain an acceptable image. Ask her if she feels that she has an equal voice to the boys in her class and if the teachers pay as much attention to the girls as to the boys in lessons. You might see a flicker of recognition as she admits that even the most sensible, confident, intelligent and grounded girl can feel that she behaves differently in a class with boys.
One of the many joys of working in an all-girls school is seeing my pupils flourish through a process of making mistakes, investigating new ideas, challenging their preconceptions about themselves and finding out who they are with the minimum of distraction and a sense that there is no area of study or life that they cannot investigate. Last year, girls from my school went on to study subjects as diverse as Anglo Saxon Norse and Celtic, War Studies and Philosophy, Mechatronics and Robotic Systems, International Management for Business and Fashion Media and Communication. Each subject was chosen because it reflected the interests of the individuals and no pupil felt inhibited about pursuing a particular career because her peers disapproved. In an all-girls environment each girl or young woman is free to find their own personal joys and passions. The individual drives the subject choice, rather than the subject appearing to preclude certain people from studying it because of the assumptions of others. Thus we all seek a school in which our children can flourish – where – as we often say at my school – they can seek to be the best that they can be. An all-girls environment enables young women to pursue a multi-layered process of discernment about who they are and where their academic passions lie.
Outward looking and self-confident
The most worrying female role models when I was a pupil were those who wore very large shoulder pads and displayed an intimidating lack of empathy. Our daughters today are flooded with information about what women can be, should be and should not be. They are bombarded with seemingly unarguable and diametrically opposed absolutes about what it is to be female in the twenty-first century. Perhaps more than ever before, young men and women have to tread through a minefield of expectations far more confusing and potentially damaging than those that their parents grew up with. Single sex education does not isolate young people from the ‘reality’ of life, rather it can ensure that the focus of the pupils is outward looking because it is unclouded by the dynamics of a co-educational classroom; it is a challenging way of educating young people because there is nowhere to hide from the journey of learning; it demands maturity but growth which reflects the pace of the individual. When girls who have been educated at all-girls schools arrive at University they are often more confident than their peers because they have tested their identity and self-confidence with integrity and arrive ready to embrace all that life has to offer.
When girls join year 7 at Harrogate Ladies’ College, they all learn to play Lacrosse. My girls are some of the kindest, most polite and gracious young women you will meet – indeed recent school inspectors described them as ‘disarmingly charming’ – but when they are learning how to ‘growl’ at their opponent in Lacrosse and they are speeding up and down the pitch in the freezing rain working closely with their team mates to secure victory, I know that these girls have a fierce heart and determination to do their best. These are some of the qualities which – alongside academic achievement – will equip and empower our young people to embrace a future which, if geneticists are to be believed, may include from this generation of children the first person to live to the age of 200. In your choice of school look for the environment and ethos which reflect your own values and which will challenge our children to be their very best selves.
Sylvia Brett is Principal of Harrogate Ladies’ College, a boarding and day school for girls aged 11–18 and girls and boys aged 2–11. Before coming to Harrogate Sylvia was for five years Deputy Head at Roedean School in Sussex. Sylvia began her teaching career, after working in University fundraising, as a Housemistress at the Royal Masonic School in Hertforshire. She went on to Caldicott, a boys’ preparatory school where she worked as Lay Chaplain, and then moved to Downe House where she was Housemistress, RS teacher and Head of Lower School. Sylvia was educated at South Hampstead High School GDST and the Universities of Durham and London where she pursued her academic passion for Theology and Philosophy.