A heated debate has broken out among the heads of some of Kent and Sussex’s most prestigious schools over the merits of an all-girls’ education.
The furore over how best to educate daughters was triggered by comments made by Richard Cairns, the headmaster of the mixed-sex independent school Brighton College.
Mr Cairns’ criticism of all-female education caused uproar when published in the Independent School Parent magazine, in which he called an all-girls set up ‘outdated’ and ‘deeply unrealistic’.
However, his views have provoked criticism from the heads of three all-girls schools which draw their pupils from Tunbridge Wells – Kent College, Mayfield School and Benenden.
But despite the outrage directed at him, a spokesman for Mr Cairns said he remained unrepentant, adding he ‘stood by’ his remarks and felt no need to update them.
In the article Mr Cairns said: “I am often perplexed when they [parents] end up being swayed by outdated notions about girls performing better in single sex schools and plump for that deeply unrealistic world.”
He rhetorically asks how well will the girls cope in the workplace if they have not learned to socialise with members of the opposite sex before adding: “They may have a clutch of A*s and a first class degree but if they cannot meaningfully converse and communicate with male colleagues they will be at a huge disadvantage.”
Mr Cairns then goes on to quote the findings of a study compiled by the American journal Science which states women who were educated at single-sex schools were ‘compromised in the workplace as their ability to network and cooperate with men was inhibited’.
He also questions the wellbeing of girls in single sex schools, stating they can sometimes suffer a degree of ‘emotional intensity’ that can lead to bullying.
Taking aim at the argument he claims is ‘still trotted out’ that girls achieve more academically in single-sex environments, particularly in ‘male’ subjects, Mr Cairns said this was down mainly to the ‘very selective’ nature of these institutions.
But his criticism was rebuffed by Mayfield head Antonia Beary, who accused Mr Cairns of being ‘tiresome and outdated’ in his views on the subject, going so far as to suggest the remarks were driven more by rivalry than conviction.
She said: “We are all accustomed to Mr Cairns’ rather tiresome predilection for causing controversy by aggressively targeting his competitor schools, but I find it curious that he should choose to do so quite so lazily with this recycled article from March 2015.
“It is rather sad that Mr Cairns is so behind the times. I have a school full of girls happy to prove his opinions outdated and inaccurate.
“I suggest that, rather than put them at a disadvantage, single sex schools promote in girls a confidence in their own ability which allows them to engage on a global stage, not only with their peers but with those they are managing and being managed by in a work environment.”
She adds it is ‘wholly outdated’ to think you need to have boys in the classroom to be able to ‘cope’ with them.
Mrs Beary goes on to say it is ‘absolutely ludicrous’ to think that in modern world there is little contact between the sexes.
She lists social networking, close co-operation with boy’s schools, and the contact they have with male friends and family outside of the classroom, to counter the notion the girls ‘never meet boys.’
“In fact, I believe our girls benefit from the space to be themselves and escape from the pressure to conform to a perceived norm that the media and society (not least teenage boys) place on them,” she added.
Her remarks were echoed by the head of another prominent all-girls school.
Julie Lodrick, head of Kent College Pembury, also accused Mr Cairns of acting in a ‘provocative’ manner simply to gain publicity.
She said: “Richard Cairns is clearly chasing column inches using outdated, but nevertheless provocative statements guaranteed to result in outrage.
“Sadly, he has succeeded in getting his desired response and at the same time he misses the key point.
“The fact of the matter is that all of us who are educators in both the independent and state sectors are doing our utmost to ensure that the children and young people in our care receive the very best education that we can provide.”
Mrs Lodrick said it was the choice of parents to decide what is best for their children, stating it is, in fact, ‘the very crux of the matter’, adding: “Girls’ schools provide the right environment for many girls, whilst some parents may feel that a co-ed setting is preferable for their daughter.
“For all his posturing, Mr Cairns cannot escape the unpalatable truth that girls do well at girls’ schools.
“This is evident every year in the league tables for independent schools, where girls’ schools dominate the top positions.”
Benenden head Samantha Price also placed an emphasis on the importance of choice for parents when it came to educating their daughters.
She said: “The new term started with the Headmaster of Brighton College triggering controversy by claiming that girls were at a disadvantage if they were educated at a single-sex school.
“I have worked in girls’ schools, boys’ schools and co-educational schools and there are persuasive arguments for all three models. There is no right model of school, but there is a right school for your child.
“His argument is that if girls attend girls’ schools they do not mix with boys, so when they enter the workplace they struggle to converse and communicate with men. I welcome the debate that these comments have prompted.
“One of the benefits I have seen for girls in a single-sex environment is that they have the space to have a go at things without worrying about how they may be seen by the opposite sex.
“They are not so image conscious and there is far less pressure to grow up too quickly. They can be themselves.”
But Mr Cairns found support from Ian Bauckham, the head of the mixed-sex Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Tunbridge Wells.
Mr Bauckham said: “I do not take a dogmatic view on this issue. In my opinion there are a number of ways to organise schools and education, and each approach has its merits and disadvantages.
He goes on to say that while the arguments for and against single-sex education were ‘well-rehearsed already,’ growing up together is more ‘normal’ in that it replicates the wider world, adding: “it is possible to argue that girls and boys should get used to being and working together as early as possible.”
Mr Bauckham states his own ‘personal preference’ is for mixed-sex education, as getting used to the opposite sex is ‘as important a part of growing up as learning to mix confidently in adult company.’
Anecdotally, Mr Bauckham warns about what many teenagers from single-sex schools can be like once at university.
He said: “I went to a mixed school myself – I recall with horror the ways in which both young men and young women at my university behaved when they had just come out of single sex schools and into mixed university accommodation. It was not a pretty sight. Far better to be used to mixed company with the support of school and before going to university.”