Schools just for girls -- 'never disappearing

Strong academics, concern for the whole person, and treatment of each girl individually are common characteristics of the 23 schools that belong to the Girls' Public Day School Trust. Beyond that, Janet Sondheimer, the chairman, explained, each of the schools is run to suit its particular needs.

Yet the schools have another common characteristic as well: They all began about 100 years ago, before there was free secondary schooling in England or Wales, and they still look for ways to offer places to girls whose families cannot afford school fees.

This puts the schools right in the middle of the current controversy in Parliament over public funds paying for places at independent schools for children who can pass the entrance examinations. This issue -- money from the public purse paying private schools fees -- heats up every once in a while here in England, and isnow white hot indeed.

Most of the Girls' Trust schools are day schools, most consist of both a junior and secondary department, and all prepare students for examination at O level (corresponds with SAT examinations in the United States) and at A level (corresponding approximately to examinations after two years in a US college or university).

Mrs. Sondheimer makes no apologies for the fact that the schools are still single-sex. She considers this a definite strenth, and is "not pleased" with the present trend of boys' independent schools taking girls in the sixth form.

For their part, the boys' schools heads say there are only offering to the girls what they could not get in their own schools, particularly science equipment.

But Mrs. Sondheimer, and other headmistresses interviewed, do not agree. It is their contention that most of the girls accepted by schools like Westminster come from institutions with very strong sixth forms and that the girls with poor backgrounds, who might need this special opportunity, don't get the chance to attend any independent school.

The Girls' Public Day School Trust Council, which includes both men and women , chooses the heads for the 23 schools. "This, in a way," Mrs. Sondheimer explained, "is the most important function we have." All are women and, at the present time, 17 are listed as "Miss" and 6 as "Mrs." They do not have to have doctorates or even a master's degree; instead a great deal of emphasis is placed on the first degree, not only where the work was done, but in what subject and at what depth.

Next comes a broad knowledge and a breadth of experience. A woman who has taught in only one school may not, for example, win a place as headmistress over another candidate who has taught in more than one school and may even have had experience in a local state school.

To my persistent questioning on what sort of person is chosen, Mrs. Sondheimer revealed that if all else is correct, and several candidates hold similar qualifications, "then we take the person who is the warmest."

And in that connection, she spoke of the need for a school to provide more than academics; for the whole girl to be the focus of the school head and staff; for each girl to be treated as a separate and distinct individual.

For several years, the Girls' Trust has been collecting gifts to help pay school fees for girls whose families cannot afford them. Now the emphasis -- some $:2 million later (about $4.5 million) -- is on improving the physical plants.

Does Mrs. Sondheimer, in the foreseeable future, see a time when there won't be a demand for single-sex girls' schools? When all girls will attend either coeducational independent schools or schools in the state system?

"No." A pause, "Never."

The general run is for a girl to enter one of these schools at the age of 11 or 12 and to stay on for seven years. As Mrs. Sondheimer sees it, there are social and physiological pressures on girls, coming around the age of 14, that tend to disturb them. And she holds that establishment in a single-sex school, with careful social and academic direction, will not only get them past that "bad patch," but ive them a strong start on a university career, and on a job or the raising of a family, or both.

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