School days: Memories of girlhood are gold

By Cheng Yui Seeng

The author (left) and her friend revisit their all-girls Secondary school in 2015 after graduation. PHOTO: CHENG YUI SEENG

The 10 whole years of my primary and secondary education were spent in a girls’ school. It’s a long time but I enjoyed every bit of it. There was something about being in an entirely female environment that was liberating. Having no boys around meant that we could talk openly about women issues without being judged, without worrying about what the opposite gender would think about us. Girls were free to be girls.

Single-sex schools make up less than a fifth of all primary and secondary schools here — 13 per cent are primary schools and 18 per cent are secondary schools. At 8.9 per cent of schools, girls’ schools outnumber boys’ schools, which make up 6.2 per cent.

Sending me to an all-girls school wasn’t a conscious decision on my parents’ part. We just happen to live across a girls’ primary school, and after that, I managed to do well enough to get into an all-female secondary school that wasn’t too far from where I lived. It was really a stroke of luck.

Over the years, single-sex schools have been facing criticism. Some say gender segregation may reinforce gender stereotypes and deprive students of adequate social skills, as they interact less with the opposite gender. Time and again, there would be calls for the Ministry of Education to consider doing away with single-sex schools.

Some single-sex schools, however, have become co-educational (co-ed) over the decades.

Last year, Canossa Convent Primary School, which had been a girls' school for 77 years, started taking in boys. Interviewed parents welcomed the change, especially those with sons about to enter primary school. One interviewed alumnus was supportive and said it would be more convenient for parents who have both sons and daughters they could send their children to the same school.

“It's good that the school can also instil the same values of compassion and empathy in boys,” Ms Rebecca Chin told The Straits Times last year.

The principal said the move was a natural progression as its affiliated schools — Canossaville Pre-School and Canossian School for the Hearing Impaired — already cater to both girls and boys.

Other such schools include De La Salle School, a former boys’ primary school which admitted its first batch of female students for lower primary classes in 1996 after enrolment rates fell in 1993. Another is Nan Hua High School (formerly Nan Hwa Girls' High School) which used to be a girls’ secondary school before admitting Secondary One boys in 1984.

I’m thankful that these conversions don’t happen regularly. I enjoyed my time in an all-girls school, and frankly, it would be a pity if my alma maters actually became co-ed.

But I have to admit, it was difficult when I first entered junior college. I didn’t know how to talk to guys my inexperience interacting with them made me self-conscious. I also loathed the way the guys in my school talked to each other. For the first time, I heard conversations where every other sentence was peppered with colourful expletives. It was a culture shock.

Would I have faced this problem if I went to a mixed school? Probably not. But still, I cherish my all-girls education.

A skim through a popular parenting forum, KiasuParents, showed some parents think single-sex schools are better for their children. Fewer distractions, fewer academic obstacles and fewer early relationships were some merits single-sex schools had, they wrote.

There’s also evidence that single-sex schools lead to better academic outcomes than co-ed schools. A 2015 study of schools in England showed better GCSE results (the English equivalent of GCE ‘O’ Levels) in all-girls secondary schools than mixed schools, where 75 per cent of all-girls school goers got five good passes, compared to 55 per cent in mixed schools. Pupils from poorer backgrounds did better in single-sex schools — 61 per cent of poorer students at all-girls schools got five good passes. This was 55 per cent for poorer students in mixed schools.

In South Korea, a 2013 study found a significant association between single-sex schools and better Korean and English test scores. A larger proportion of single-sex school graduates entered four-year colleges.

But it’s not just about the academics. My girl friends and I thrived in the liberal environment.

We learnt to be strong, independent women who could handle things ourselves. We didn’t have guys to help with “manual labour” and did everything — from carrying heavy things to cleaning. I only saw gender stereotypes play out in junior college. During PE lessons, guys were assigned to carry equipment while girls just watched and waited.

There were also, naturally, more leadership opportunities for us than for our counterparts in co-ed schools, especially for roles that are traditionally male-dominated. Boys are much more likely to take up leadership roles in Science and Mathematics classes in co-ed schools, showed a 2017 survey of teachers in the United States. We didn’t need to fight with boys for leadership opportunities nor feel oppressed by their very presence. My classmates designed flying machines and did projects to represent the school in Science competitions. We never doubted our abilities because of our gender.

We didn't have to let self-consciousness get in the way. For one, we never had to feel embarrassed about a certain female bodily process no need for disguises. We could look dishevelled after a long day of class and not have a single care. We could be competitive and aggressive during sports without fear of being labelled fierce or a tomboy. When I went to junior college, I realised I could no longer openly ask the person beside me in class if she had a sanitary pad. I started to be more aware of the way I looked, and would always make sure my hair wasn’t too messy (something I never used to do). I also found out that it wasn’t a norm for girls to fight their best during games in PE most of my female peers who were from co-ed schools were rather passive.

Back then, we didn't have the pressure of traditional female stereotypes like being ladylike or accommodating. We laughed our heads off when we were happy. We grumbled out loud when we were sad.

It was a place where we could express ourselves. We took Valentines’ Day as an opportunity to express our love and appreciation for friends. Some gave their classmates sweets and others took the effort to bake for their friends. At the end of the year, we would write appreciation letters to thank each other. Never mind that most of us didn’t have partners then we learnt to love each other instead. I stopped writing such letters in junior college because that affectionate atmosphere just wasn’t there.

I’ll always look back fondly on my days in an all-girls school. Five years have passed, but the good memories are here to stay.

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