Leading the way – Will le Fleming

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What do we know about the best schools in the country?

Well, the first thing we know is that this question is flawed. Schools are complex living institutions and any narrow comparative measure – particularly the absurd simplification of league tables – is misleading. Much worse: it is damaging to the young people whose efforts in exams are so crudely tabulated.

However, for the sake of argument and interest, let’s consider for a moment the UK’s top 50 independent schools, including The Abbey – at least, according to the whim of compilers and algorithms in the most recent published table.

Of these top 50, 46% are girls’ schools. Looking only at day schools the proportion rises still further, to 51%. Girls’ schools make up less than 12% of all independent schools, so this is some over-performance.

Why is this? It’s true that nationwide girls now out-perform boys in all types of school examination – the latest A Level round saw 46.9% of girls achieve top grades against 42.1% of boys – but not by enough to explain the dominance of leading girls’ schools.

Some would portray this outstanding success negatively, claiming hothouse intensity, but anyone who has ever spent time in any of these schools knows how far this is from the mark. That criticism wallows in misogynistic tropes, characterising an all-girls’ community as heated and febrile. It’s not far off the classic sexist gibe of hysteria, and fits comfortably into a long history of belittling female scholarship and intellectual endeavour going back to the bluestockings and beyond.

For me one part of the explanation and one simple truth is that girls’ schools are outstanding places in which to collaborate. It so happens that our community focuses on school learning. I think our students would excel whatever the task. Set this group of young people a common problem of any kind and they demolish it. There’s a mutually-reinforcing enthusiasm and capability that at its best is dazzling. It is not uncommon for visitors to remark: if only these young people were running the world. Well yes: if only!

I’m not saying this means girls’ schools are getting everything right. The hallmark of a good school is recognising how often we get it wrong: the things we aren’t doing; the ways in which we need to learn. Our young people face challenges. We always try to support them, and sometimes we, and they, mess things up. We are painfully aware of that, and of the need to be honest with ourselves, see our weaknesses, and do our level best every day to improve them.

However: there are wonderful things happening in girls’ schools, resulting in wonderful successes, and these need celebrating. It might be the way our young people interact with each other, the unashamed celebration of individuality, the increasing understanding of the limitations of the binary and the positive impact of difference. It might be the honest, frank and open management of teams we see in our departments. It might be the sheer readiness to commit.

Too often the simple celebration of these qualities and of girls’ success is met with defensiveness, as if praising the achievement of a girls’ school is in itself a denigration of boys’ schools, or with amused condescension. Both feel intended to limit, constrain, hold back. 

To answer the question with which we began: we know the best schools in the country are aware of their limitations, aware of how much more they can and should be doing, aware of the responsibility they hold. And we know that many of them are girls’ schools, who need to show the confidence and assurance they expect in all their students, set out the things they are doing best, and share their practice with schools of every type and in every sector. We are so fiercely proud of our students. It is time to sing their praises as loudly as they deserve.

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