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As Scotland closes its last girls' state school, should we call time on the single-sex school?

Hundreds of Notre Dame High School girls protesting outside Glasgow City Council
Hundreds of Notre Dame High School girls protesting outside Glasgow City Council Credit: Jamie Simpson/Newsquest Media Group

Amid bitter debate, the last state-run single sex institution in Scotland has been forced to admit boys

Do single-sex schools foster girls’ academic success, or are they a pointless relic of the Victorian past? A long-running battle on the subject finally ended yesterday, as Glasgow City Councillors voted unanimously to allow boys to attend Notre Dame High School in the city’s West End. It is the last single-sex state school in Scotland and will now go co-educational come 2021. 

“I’m delighted”, says Jill Grady, a member of the pro-co-ed Notre Dame High for All campaign group, which successfully lobbied against the girls-only rule. “It’s about equality in Glasgow.” Along with their rivals, Notre Dame 4 Girls, who supported the status quo, they have been organising petitions and running social media campaigns for the past year. 

Although the result was expected, it was still a bitter defeat for those had fought fiercely to keep the school as it is. “Once we heard [the result] out loud we were absolutely gutted”, says Michelle Watt, a pro-single-sex campaigner whose daughter left the school this summer. “We’ve had lots of texts from girls currently at the school who are in tears.”

The rival campaigns stirred up familiar arguments over equality, discrimination and abuse of the public purse. The topic was so controversial that parents agreed to avoid it at the school gates, but turnout for the internal ballot at the primary feeder school was 76 per cent — far higher than at the last general election. 

As part of the consultation, the council asked the public to vote for what they thought would be best for the school, giving them three options: to leave the school as is, keep it girls-only but tweak the catchment area, or to make it co-educational.

Michelle Watt, a mother who campaigned to keep the school girls-only, standing in front of Notre Dame High School Credit: Chris Watt

They received a remarkable 7,110 responses, from which each side claimed victory: the first option got 39.9 per cent of votes; the second, 13.4 per cent; and the third, 45.9 per cent. So although a majority voted to allow boys entry, the combined votes to keep the school single-sex (the first and second options) totalled 53.3 per cent. “It’s like Brexit”, says Watt.

The vote brings to an end over 100 years of single-sex education at the Glasgow secondary, which was founded in 1897 by an order of Catholic nuns. At the time, girls-only schools were commonplace — designed to teach girls to be “decorative, modest, marriageable beings”, with lessons centred on domestic subjects, writes Carol Dyhouse in Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England. They were kept separate to boys, who went to boarding schools to learn “masculine” traits like independence. 

The ethos of most girls’ schools is markedly different today, styling themselves as feminist institutions that give girls a chance to thrive with fewer disruptions and distractions. Evidence may not be clear-cut, but girls’ schools are certainly not lagging behind: four out of the UK’s top 10 schools for A-level results are girls-only, whereas three are just boys. According to a study published last year by educational analysts SchoolDash, girls’ schools on average outperformed both boys’ and mixed schools on GCSE results. 

Sue Hincks, president of the Girls’ School Association (GSA) and headmistress of Bolton School Girls’ Division, says the reasons for this are clear. “Girls enjoy being able to give their opinion freely, which sometimes in a co-ed classroom is harder to do when there are more dominant male voices.” Without these domineering personalities taking up lesson time, the pace of learning is much faster, she adds. “I have to say to new teachers that you need to double the amount of preparation because girls just lap it up.”

Girls also tend to choose different subjects when boys aren’t watching: girls at GSA schools are 75 per cent more likely to take maths A-level and 70 per cent more likely to take chemistry. “It’s much easier for girls to do things in an all-female environment because there’s no stereotyping going on”, Hincks explains.

A photo from the Notre Dame 4 All campaign group Credit: Notre Dame 4 All

Watt says her view on the school’s future were informed by her own experience as a parent. “I saw how well my daughter flourished [there],” she says. “When we live in a society where women are still demanding equal pay... it’s good to have one place where you don’t have to work harder because of your gender.”

She points out that many parents prefer their daughter being in an all-girls school because of their faith — almost half of girls at the school are Muslim, despite the Catholic ethos. “It’s not fair that only people who can pay [for private school] should be able to go to girls’ schools.”

Importantly, the pupils themselves appear to be happy with the status quo. Earlier this month, a group of girls in Notre Dame uniform descended on Glasgow City Council, carrying signs reading “Empower Women”, and “Our School, Our Voice, Our Choice”. 

Some of them returned yesterday for the vote. Olivia, a current pupil, was upset by the outcome. “I’m really shocked”, she told Heart News. “We felt like Notre Dame was something we all held close to our hearts and it’s just been taken away from us...I just think it’s unfair.”

Across the UK, the number of single-sex schools is dropping rapidly. In the middle of the 20th century, almost every pupil went to a single-sex school, a number that had fallen to just six per cent in 2010. More recent numbers are difficult to come by, but the drop is particularly rapid in the state sector, and between 1994 and 2014 the number of independent single-sex schools also halved.

Grady believes yesterday’s decision sounded the all-girls death knell: “There isn’t a demand for it”, she says. Her daughter and son are both at Notre Dame Primary, the co-educational feeder school and, prior to the vote, she worried about the difficulty of sending them their separate ways when they leave. Doubling the school run would have been inappropriate given we are in a “climate emergency”, she says, adding that the school should be attended by children from the local area, and not the spread of 50 primaries, as at present. 

She believes that co-education is, in fact, more progressive. “It’s not inclusive to exclude 50 per cent of children”, she says. “Gender sterotypes are reinforced by sex-segregated education.” Her group also disputes studies showing that girls’ schools do better than their mixed counterparts, countering that results are often skewed by the fact that single-sex schools are more likely to be private or grammars. 

The authorities are on Grady’s side; the first boys to enter Notre Dame will be admitted from August 2021 after the school has gone through £750,000 of renovations to add extra toilets and changing rooms. They will start in the first year, so no girls currently at the school will share a classroom with the new boys.

As one of Glasgow's top-performing schools - in a sought after area of a city with a lot of pressure on school places - the Notre Dame debate has left locals divided. 

If it were in a less desirable location, with worse results, it is unlikely that parents would be banging on the doors to get their sons in.

Come 2021, they will no longer have to.

Do you think single sex schools should still exist? What are the pros and cons of having them? Share your thoughts in the comments below.