In June of this year, the Women’s Business Council released a report entitled Maximising Women’s Contribution to Future Economic Growth, which aimed to focus on sectors with the greatest potential for economic expansion, and on recommendations with a clear economic case for action.
The report revealed that more than 2.4 million women are currently out of work and want to work, while 1.3 million want to boost their hours, with the most interesting finding suggesting that a rise in working women could actually boost UK growth.
While single-sex schools have traditionally been seen to tackle the “gender divide” issue more rigorously than mixed-sex schools, it is something that needs to be addressed by all schools. Fortunately, there are a number of easy ways for schools to enhance their female empowerment activities and make them more effective.
The gender divide exists, the glass ceiling exists, challenges in balancing motherhood with a career exists – failing to address these issues or sugar-coating their seriousness will not make them disappear.
It is important to avoid clichés and talk frankly about the challenges which face young women who want to have a fascinating and fulfilling career as well as a family.
Girls’ schools can have a reputation for being safe environments and for some that can be cloying. Ensuring that a “safe environment” does not translate to a closed environment that doesn’t push boundaries or challenge clichés is key for any school that wishes to empower its female students.
For us, a safe environment is one that promotes the freedom to be courageous and encourages learning from mistakes. It is important that the girls learn independence and the value of taking considered risks. School leaders need to be clear of the kind of environment they want for their school – once they have established this, they can begin implementing and nurturing it slowly but surely.
Confidence through careers guidance
The quality of the relationships we have defines all that we do both formally and informally. We provide our girls with traditional careers guidance, but more importantly, we also enable them to learn more about themselves, to explore things that interest them and prepare them for the important decisions and challenges they are likely to face in the future.
One initiative we introduced that has proved successful in preparing our students to address these challenges when they leave school is the Enterprise Scheme. This was set up to help girls to operate in a boardroom setting.
The girls are encouraged to set up their own business, and the teacher’s role is simply to offer advice and guidance. We set up interview panels throughout the school for the girls to present and pitch their ideas; here they could ask for advice, funding and financial investments, as they would in real-life scenarios. The more the girls participated in these interview panels, the more their confidence grew.
Ensure role-models are relevant
When we think of today’s most successful business people, entrepreneurs and innovators, too often we immediately think of Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs. And while nobody would argue these men’s successes, or suggest that they are not worthy role-models for young women, it is important that girls have equally successful and high-profile female role-models to look up to.
With this in mind, we ensure that students are exposed to real role-models throughout the school’s structure, from governance to leadership. We also acknowledge the rich capital available to us in our parents and use them as much as possible; we regularly invite parents to the school to offer students advice on various career options, help them with interview practice, and offer them work experience.
We must encourage life-skills: individuality, accountability, leadership and independence. As a school, it is important to celebrate individuality. Girls are encouraged to follow paths which interest and stimulate them and not those which may they feel under pressure follow.
For example, our current head girl, Gusirman Deu, won a seat in the National Youth Parliament. Her interest in a political life has been supported by her teachers and her friends.
Pupil voice must also be built into the fabric of school life and school councils should harness the students’ ability to develop and improve school life. Throughout every year group, we allow the girls to have a say in how decisions are made. By giving them ownership of the issues that have a direct impact on them, pupils will begin to feel comfortable in voicing their opinions, but also to have accountability for their actions.
Last year, for example, a year 6 girl emailed the head girl not only to apologise for missing a student council meeting, but to assure her that she would follow up actions from the minutes. Ensuring that students have an understanding of accountability from a young age is very important as it lays the foundations for ensuring that they are at ease in assuming this role in later life. I have found that the more students are presented with opportunities to lead within the school setting, the more they are inclined to adopt a leadership position in all aspects of life.
Everyone is on an equal footing, even when it comes to students and staff; we rejoice when we realise we have a head girl who is an exceptional leader and because of that, she has become more like a colleague than a pupil. There is no division between the year groups either. We introduced a “big sister/little sister” programme a few years ago and it has proved hugely successful. Older girls guide younger girls through the transitional stages of the school (from junior to senior school, for example) and provide a sympathetic ear as well as support in fun classroom activities.
Nurture emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence is critical for girls as they learn aspects of this from the very youngest years. Three-year-olds, for example, are taught to recognise feelings which are uncomfortable; this level of self-knowledge is powerful as girls grow older as this is where real empowerment lies.
It is important to teach them to be themselves, so while they may leave school with excellent results, they are also equipped with the ability to stay true to the values they hold dear. Ensuring that they do not focus so much on what they do not know or cannot do, but on what they do know and can do is crucial as it aims to counter the crippling self-doubt which can impede women from taking on the jobs which require guts and determination.
In my time as a headteacher, what I have found is that while girls are ambitious, they often need help in expressing their desire for success. Female students will thrive in environments that support and empower them; our job as educators is to help them channel their ambitions, aspirations and hopes so they reach their full potential and exceed expectations.
Further informationSt Augustine’s Priory School is hosting the inaugural symposium Equipping the Girls of Today: Empowering the women of tomorrow on November 14. The event, which is free to attend will discuss whether girls’ schools give their pupils the skills and stomach for lifelong effectiveness. For details, visit www.saintaugustinespriory.org.uk or call 020 8991 7519.
Sarah Raffray is headteacher at girls’ school St Augustine’s Priory in Ealing, London.
CAPTION: Empowered: Students at St Augustine’s Priory in Ealing (both images)