Things You Only Know If You Went To An All Girls School
The Debrief: Apparently girls thrive in same-sex educations because there are less distractions. Lauren Bravo went to one, and disagrees.
When my friend Hannah got married at the beginning of this month, the four other bridesmaids and I did a speech. It featured a load of cryptic in-jokes, time-worn anecdotes and a section that can best be described as ‘emoji semaphore’. And we did the whole thing wearing matching red hats.
Not because Pinterest bridal trends have finally fallen into the abyss, but because we are that curious thing: all-girls’ school survivors, out in the wild – and still best mates, 15 years after we were first thrown together in a form room.
Plus, our ‘YES I HAD A SINGLE-SEX EDUCATION’ sandwich boards would have looked gauche over pink chiffon.
This week Rhiannon Wilkinson, head of Wycombe Abbey in Buckinghamshire, made the news with claims that girls thrive at all-girls’ schools because they’re free from distraction (that old chestnut) and able to focus on their studies without all the pressures of an increasingly ‘sexualised’ world.
‘In co-ed environments lots of girls, when adolescence kicks in, want to be liked by boys not just for their intelligence. They want to be popular with boys,’ she says. ‘In an all-girls’ environment you’re free from that. Most of the time you’re focusing on your education, on who you are, you don’t feel you’re not being yourself in the classroom and you’re not afraid to throw yourself around the sports field.’
Meanwhile, The Falling, Carol Morley’s new film starring Maisie Williams, which came out on Friday, paints a gorgeous, disturbing vision of a 1960s girls’ school infected by a mystery fainting epidemic, and puts the old fallacy of female hysteria in a new context of burgeoning adolescent sexuality.
We didn’t do a whole lot of mystery fainting at my school, or much burgeoning adolescent sexuality either, unless you count keeping photos of the hot one from Fame Academy in my pencil case. But low-level hysterics and intense, all-consuming friendships sound far more like the school of my youth than one where I was happy to be liked just ‘for my intelligence’ – rather than, say, my collection of Bonne Bell lipgloss or my mum’s willingness to buy me Bacardi Breezers.
And boys or no boys, I never threw myself into anything but a dramatic depiction of menstrual cramps or a miserable heap on the sports field. Still though, Ms Wilkinson has a point.
Ours wasn’t a private school, or even nearly as posh as you really ought to be to dress a load of noughties teenagers like an Enid Blyton fever dream, but it has still ended up being one of the defining aspects of my life so far. Over a decade since I finished my GCSEs and left, I still regularly end up in conversations about the pros, cons, myths and stereotypes of single-sex education. Is it better? Is it worse? Would I send my daughter to one? Did we shower together after hockey practice?
The answer to all of those, bar the last, is usually a shrug and a ‘dunno, depends’. Schools are all different, children are all different, and there are loads of variables besides gender. But here are a few things I DO know about going to an all-girls’ school…
The ‘no distractions’ theory is (partially) bullshit
First off, not everyone fancies boys. It’s a fact that’s magically overlooked every time someone makes this particular case for single sex education – but if half a school of boys is enough to ‘distract’ you down a few grades, then a whole school of girls would be twice as big an obstacle for teens who are realising they’re not necessarily straight.
Meanwhile, if boys are the object of your hormonal, Lynx-addled affection, the physical absence of them doesn’t guarantee anything. You still find people or things to have crushes on. You become obsessed with your Geography teacher, your friend’s sulky cousin, a guy with cool, shaggy hair and a leather jacket you once saw across a train platform who may or may not have actually been a lady in her fifties. You’ll emote at a pencil sharpener if you need to.
You might make up entire songs about the school caretaker’s son who sometimes earns money hoovering in the evenings, and invent excuses to stay late and take turns walking past him in a corridor, humming bars of ‘Fit Cleaner Boy’ like a siren call. One day an educational drama troupe full of twentysomething men visits, and your internal testosterone-o-meter goes off like a smoke alarm. You think you might actually choke on it in the air.
Maybe you get good grades at the end of all this plotting and pining, maybe you don’t – but it certainly feels as distracting as hell.
If you’re lucky, it bonds you for life
The older I get, the more I realise it’s actually quite unusual to have a rock-solid group of adult friends who all vividly remember the choreography for your Year 9 dance contest entry, or the day a girl was ‘severely pecked’ by a seagull on the school field.
That kind of friendship is rare and glorious. It’s friendship that goes the distance and weathers the storms of your twenties and thirties. Or at least, it is when you actually all still like each other a decade later, rather than just being bound into friendship out of guilt, habit, and the blood pact you all made about what really happened to Miss McKenna’s tube of Canestan.
It teaches you to find your own fun
Sometimes your all-girls’ school past is a badge of honour, sometimes it’s like walking around hoping nobody will notice you’re secretly a giant lizard instead of a human. There are weird rituals, secret languages, jokes so elaborate that nobody can fully remember how they started or why they were actually funny.
‘Yeah, so I didn’t go on a date until I was 19,’ you find yourself telling people. ‘But I was one of the original inventors of Lunchbox Chuck, a game where you throw your lunchbox at each other in formation. Does that count for nothing?’
It doesn’t mess you up forever… just for a few crucial years
It’s important to note that an all-girls’ education doesn’t leave everyone incapable of talking to the opposite sex for years afterwards. Plenty of those we were at school with were happily shacked up with babies by the time I’d nailed my first non-imaginary snog, so I assume they must have managed more than a provocative dance to Blue’s Too Close at an under-18s disco.
But it also can’t just be coincidence that so many of my group went on to co-ed sixth forms and descended into a two-year frenzy of unrequited love and awkwardness. Which we did, big time.
I could pretend we didn’t have a long, detailed plan for the way we were all going to live together in a Spinster House for Spinsters, wear matching floral knickers and eat our dinner out of label-less tins ‘for excitement’, but at some points that fantasy felt far more believable than the idea that we’d all end up contentedly single or in happy, functional relationships. Which we did.
It’s basically impossible to know how you would have turned out otherwise
The thing is, we might have been merry, lunchbox-throwing oddballs at a mixed school. We might still have got good grades, lusted after boys silently from behind our locker doors, and bonded with other girls for decades to come. If we’d been totally different people, maybe we’d still have gone to an all-girls’ school but come out of it with fewer anecdotes and a load more hickies instead. There’s just no way of knowing for sure.
But I do know that for me, standing in front of 80 wedding guests retelling the story of the time the bride got herself tangled up in the badminton net, those few years of being romantically stunted in a ridiculous uniform for 15-and-counting years of friendship was, on balance, a pretty good trade.
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