The joys and challenges of supporting girls

Of the six schools in which I worked as a teacher and leader, three were girls’ schools.  My own education had been entirely in co-ed schools, and the only experience of single sex schools for girls I had had was one teaching practice during my PGCE year.  When I became Head of English in a girls’ state school in 1989 I discovered I loved teaching English, and leading a team, in this environment, and later in my career I was fortunate to be both the deputy head (with a pastoral focus) and then a head in two girls’ independent schools.  In 2009 I was honoured to serve for a year as President of the Girls’ Schools Association, and in that capacity I very much enjoyed talking about how we can best prepare the girls of today to deal with the challenges, and make the most of the opportunities, that will come with being the women of tomorrow.

So supporting girls, and supporting parents as they raise girls, was a significant part of my professional life.  When Maria O’Neill asked me whether I would contribute a piece specifically on pastoral care of girls for the first issue of the the UKPastoralChat online periodical, I was happy to agree, and the piece follows below.

Please do read the rest of the periodical, if you haven’t yet had chance to do so.   Well done to Maria for pulling together such an impressive publication.


In 2013, Joanna Moorhead, journalist and mother of four daughters, talked to Steve Biddulph, child development specialist and author, about the particular challenges, and rewards, of bringing up four daughters in an article in The Guardian.   They considered issues that parents raising girls might confront, and offered advice.

At the time of the birth of her fourth daughter, Moorhead says, ‘I was certain that life held no bigger prize than the joy of raising daughters…. Raising girls makes for a wonderful, passion-fuelled, exciting, interesting and fun-filled lifetime’. She also, however, talked of the ‘frightening moments’, involving ‘alcohol, ambulances, hospitals, police officers and wild parties’.

During my five years of deputy headship followed by ten years of headship in girls’ schools, I supported parents and dealt with the repercussions of such issues in school (which quite often involve girls you are the last to expect to cross these particular boundaries).  Moorhead wisely added, ‘and that’s only the stuff we know about’.  I would add to the list eating disorders and self-harm, petty shoplifting and experimentation with drugs, inappropriate images transmitted through social media, and early sexual experiences – all of which can, of course, feature in the lives of teenage boys too.  But eating disorders and self-harm are more common among girls, and parents, in my experience, often worry far more about their daughters’ involvement in sex, drugs and alcohol than their sons’.  Is it because we see girls as more vulnerable and in need of protection?

So how do schools, together with parents, support girls through the rollercoaster of adolescence and the years in which boundaries are tested?  As Moorhead observed, being a girl in the 21st century ‘seems much edgier, more fragile, more frenzied and scarier than it was in my day’.  Steve Biddulph said of girls, ‘One in five will experience a serious psychological disorder before reaching adulthood. They are a lot more anxious, they are more likely to self-harm, they are more prone to bullying, they are binge drinking and they are more likely to be at risk of promiscuous sexual behaviour.’

If this was written in 2013, how might the last five years have exacerbated this situation? How do parents and teachers who have grown up in a different generation, without some of the pressures girls face today, deal with this and offer girls the right balance of love, support and guidance?  With respect to technology and social networking, for example, Moorhead talks of her daughters’ ‘laptops and mobile phones always within easy reach’, so that they ‘always seem to be plugged in to some electronic device or other’.  Biddulph suggests that no teenage girl should have a TV in her bedroom, but girls can now access so much on iPads and smartphones.   His advice that all mobile phones should be charged in the kitchen overnight so that no late-night texting and tweeting can go on is sound, if parents are strong enough to enforce it. Certainly young people’s dependency on their phones and on social networking continues to develop, and this is something schools, including boarding schools, also have to negotiate.

I suggest it is important that we educate girls about risk rather than simply policing them, and responsible parents and good schools work together on this.  Being open, realistic and trusting and always keeping lines of communication open will take us further than trying to be draconian about technology, or, in fact, about any other boundaries girls might be tempted to cross.  Just as many schools have moved from banning phones and other hand-held devices in school to finding ways of making productive use of them, parents need to understand the pull of such devices to their daughters and encourage awareness of responsible use and of managing (rather than avoiding) risk, and recognising consequences.

Biddulph and Moorhead agreed that parenting matters, that role-models are very powerful, and that we all need to consider what we are modelling to young people. Schools are full of potential role-models, and this is one way in which we can send out positive messages in our pastoral provision for girls (and boys, of course).  Working closely with parents is key, so that there is a degree of consistency in the messages we convey, which will often permeate the adolescent protective layers, even when girls seem to resist and rebel.  Parents and schools alike need to insist on the importance of treating others with kindness and girls looking after each other.  We need to be clear about our values, even while respecting that girls have to formulate their own.  We can see compromise as a strength and not a weakness, show patience and good humour even when we may be sorely tested!

I would add that we need to be mindful of girls’ self-esteem and seek endless opportunities to help them feel good about themselves and to recognise their own value. This does not mean indiscriminate praise, but supporting girls to try new things and to feel proud of what they achieve, at whatever level.  Parents and schools can work together to ensure they see the best in and bring the best out of girls, to raise their awareness of the impact of our words and actions on others and to take responsibility for this.  Girls, as well as boys, need and appreciate boundaries, even when they resist them.  The challenges are considerable, but the rewards are great.

Photo credit: John Berry. With four young women who had been pupils at the school where I was a head.  Wonderful to see the fine human beings they are now!

2 thoughts on “The joys and challenges of supporting girls

  1. One of your great attributes Jill, was your ability to listen and consider all the options then make a decisive decision. As one of your Governor Chairman that is something I learned from you. Your staff and pupils were the beneficiaries of this ability.


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