The Girls' Network: Supporting disadvantaged girls


A mentoring scheme for disadvantaged girls has won £10,000 in Teach First’s Innovation Awards. Charlotte Young and Becca Dean discuss why they are targeting these students and offer advice for schools.

You could easily be forgiven for thinking that we are focusing on the wrong demographic. We read in the papers every year that girls are out-performing boys.

Recent key stage 2 results reveal that girls did much better than boys, with 79 per cent reaching the expected Level 4 compared with 69 per cent of boys, while this year’s GCSE results reveal that girls gained a record lead over boys. So, why are we focusing on girls?

The fact is that for many girls and young women out there – particularly those that have come from disadvantaged backgrounds – academic success rarely translates into the best jobs, a good income, nor a better life.

According to the 2012 Women in Banking survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management, for instance, only 11 per cent of women currently hold senior financial positions; meanwhile last year, women made up less than a quarter of Parliament.

Although girls are often seen to do better at school, research shows that the gender attainment gap has closed by the time pupils sit their A levels, and in the workplace it is nearly always men that go on to secure higher salaries and positions compared to women, despite the parity in qualifications (Ofsted 2011).

Despite their academic successes, it is clearly the case that girls are missing out on the skills, experiences and confidence necessary for turning their grades into success in the wider world. 

The reasons for these levels of disparity are nothing new. Research in the 1970s and 1980s shows that girls “were marginalised in the education system, and systematically belittled and undermined in the mixed-sex classroom and playground. Policy, curriculum … and teacher expectations were shown to impact negatively on girls’ self-esteem” (Francis 2005).

Girls were also shown to respond more to negative feedback. Whereas boys “take on” or internalise positive feedback, girls are more sensitive to and internalise negative feedback, in turn impacting on self-belief and value (Lloyd 2005).

Despite the frequent belief that education has become far more “feminised”, modern research shows that education for girls has remained relatively unchanged – boys still dominate the classroom, and girls “continue to be devalued, and to devalue themselves” (Skelton & Francis 2009).

Where girls are undervalued, the impact on their self-esteem and perception of self can be huge. They won’t take risks for fear of failure, they do not put themselves forward for opportunities, or recognise their skills and achievements. Over the years, all of this continues to be reflected in the work place.

Industries tell us that they cannot recruit more women because often women do not have the appropriate qualifications for the role, and those who do often fail to put themselves forward. These issues are exacerbated for girls living in disadvantaged communities, with a history of poorly paid employment and low levels of education.

Those from low-income families tend to have fewer people in their wider networks that work in higher status jobs. Their networks contain fewer university-educated individuals, and far fewer professional women.

Zahra (not her real name), a bright and engaged year 10 student, told me that she dreamed of working as a writer for magazines or a newspaper. She then told me that her work experience placement was a local primary school, and that when she left school she might go to university, but didn’t really see the point. 

Zahra knew no professional women. For her, staying at home to raise and look after her family was not a choice. She believed she would and could do nothing else.

Research tells us half of all (work experience) placements are found by young people or by their families using largely existing social networks (Education and Employers Taskforce 2012). 

With cuts to services like Connexions and a transfer of responsibility for work experience to schools, students are receiving often limited and generic support.

The Education and Employers Taskforce report, Work Experience: Impact and delivery, quoted above, also states: “Work by sociologists and educationalists highlights the ways in which social class, gender and ethnicity often limit ambitions, regardless of aptitude. 

“In such a context, work experience can often be a powerful means to challenging stereotypes by providing first-hand evidence that girls do become engineers, boys do go on to work in childcare, or that Black and minority ethnic pupils do become scientists.” 

Where does this leave the children from families with limited social capital? Or the girls like Zahra who know no working women? Girls from these low-income families find themselves at a double disadvantage; and it is because of them that The Girls’ Network exists. 

We created the concept while we were participants on the Teach First programme and piloted it in the secondary schools in low-income communities that we were working in. The response from our students and from the women involved was overwhelming – so we developed the idea into The Girls’ Network.

We work through secondary schools to provide female mentors to girls from low-income communities. Our mentors are professionals from a wide range of backgrounds and careers, from chartered accountancy to chemical engineering, management to midwifery. Our mentoring is centered around a clear programme, with foci on skills development, confidence-building and opening up networks and opportunities that girls would otherwise not have access to. 

Mentoring has given our girls confidence in their abilities and ambitions, the skills to pursue their dreams and the knowledge to access careers they may not have even considered before.

Of our current cohort, 45 per cent of girls who said they had no idea what they wanted to do after school now want to pursue a career in science or engineering. Of these, 30 per cent already have offers from top universities to study a STEM subject.

What can schools do?

Mentoring is one part of the solution, but what can schools do to help address the marginalisation and devaluing of girls in their classrooms and corridors? Here are a few things we have seen working:

  • Run awareness-building workshops with staff, especially when in mixed-sex schools, to highlight the differences in the way students learn, contribute and respond in lessons.

  • Work with your female students to build confidence and encourage positive risk-taking.

  • Work with colleagues to develop strategies to prevent negative attitudes towards girls (or boys) within the school.

  • Consider how you give feedback and praise – how is it internalised? 

  • Promote female role-models as much as male role-models.

  • Look at the posters on your wall – are women equally represented?

  • Have conversations about careers and aspirations – draw out assumptions and find some examples that young people might find surprising.

  • Ensure careers advice is detailed, given in enough time, and links through from work in school, exams, to post-16 and 18 choices.

We would love to hear about other things that are working in your school – do get in touch.

  • Charlotte Young and Becca Dean are founders of The Girls Network.

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