The first thing you get when you mention that you've been to an all girls school to somebody who has been to a mixed school is usually an inappropriate question about lesbian experiences in changing rooms or how you've managed five years surrounded by girls only to not be gay yourself. Yet, somehow, when anybody actually does ask you about your experience of being at an all girls school, the last thing that you'd mention is just how difficult being a girl was there.
People often think that girls do better at single sex schools, and hypothetically it does make sense as there's a natural inclination to believe that there is no competition amongst girls based on looks due to the lack of boys, and therefore girls are ultimately less distracted from their studies, which Is heteronormative and problematic, as it fails to recognise that girls are multifaceted and totally capable of balancing both, as well as the fact that regardless of the presence of boys, secondary school is an especially vulnerable time for teenagers, where identity, beliefs and confidence are being questioned constantly.
But what happens if you're at an all girls school that doesn't focus on silencing those insecurities, and instead highlights them?
I went to an all girls school in North London. There are four all girls schools where I live: one which ranks in the top ten of both GCSE and A Level results of all schools nationally, both state and independent, one which the students are referred to as 'the sluts on the hill' by the rest of the schools in the borough, both single sex and mixed alike, a Catholic all girls with a great academic track record, and my former school, in the same boat as the second girls school, in terms of their non-selective, secular status and their reputation around the community.
For all of their differences, these four schools have a variety of things in common, and that is a lack of nurturing and care for the girls that attend them.
Take this, for example: sometime during 2012 and the last days of BlackBerry Messenger's popularity, the annual 'Slag List', with the person's name and school, would ping on the phones of every teenager in North London, making its way around, even outside of the M25. I say annually lightly of course, as this list was updated almost hourly, often baselessly, and essentially was used as a weapon by anybody who had a bone to pick with someone. However, where there would normally be one or two girls from a mixed school on the list, whenever the list was passed on in a girls school territory, a large group of names would be added onto the list, and fights amongst pupils would ensue, with teachers often subsequently blaming girls who found their names on the list, as opposed to tackling internalised misogyny.
Another similarity would be the encouragement of being competitive amongst your peers by students and teachers.
I remember an assembly being held by my school's English Department about the importance of daily reading, which I totally was on board with until my English teacher, the teacher leading the assembly, stated that 'girls who do not read regularly are more likely to be teenage and single mothers'. Being from a single parent family, I was shocked. I questioned her in my next lesson. Her response was one of ignorance and complacency: 'well, it's not an untrue statistic'. Why did a teacher at an all girls school, the majority of students from single parent families, think it was okay to say this? Why did a school with 90% of its staff being female, some of them single mothers themselves, think it was ok to hold an assembly with this as the message? Why tell impressionable young girls that it's essentially okay to tear other people, especially other impressionable young girls apart?
Surprisingly enough, that is not the worst example of how my school was problematically misogynistic towards its students: that was often reserved for my school's Personal, Health and Social Education days, which touched base on issues such as addiction, money, drugs, alcohol and lastly, sex. Sex education days rarely focused on having questioning sexuality, having healthy relationship, or even how to practice safe sex. The only thing that I had learned was that I would be chastised by my peers, family, and authority figures if I didn't commit to abstinence. Whenever a student would say something hurtful about someone exhibiting their sexuality, teachers would agree or add an unnecessary comment about how 'smart girls' do not find themselves pregnant at 16. Internalised misogyny was legitimised in these environments, rather than stamped out.
Naturally, this has a ripple effect on students.
Girls who attend all girls schools are more likely to suffer from eating disorders, as well as be more susceptible to mental health issues during their adolescence and early adulthood.
So why do we let misogyny thrive in what is supposed to be a safe space for young girls? And why aren't we giving girls the mental health care they deserve?
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This is my shirt from an girls school I attended.