10 March 2016
(originally published in the Queenwood newsletter)
ON LEADERSHIP IN A SINGLE-SEX GIRLS' SCHOOL
Queenwood is always a vibrant place to be, but last week felt particularly energetic. The prospective participants in our Duke of Edinburgh Award program had an Information Evening about the leadership challenges required for success, the debaters from Years 6-12 demonstrated confidence and poise during debates on some challenging topics, and our keenest language students participated in the online Linguistics Olympiad. As a linguist myself, I very much enjoyed the buzzing atmosphere in the Library Media Room where teams of girls grappled with Slovenian and Somali and translating the periodic table into Gaelic! And the week ended on another high with the Head of the River Regatta and the successful culmination of our rowing season. We all enjoyed a fantastic day at Penrith, and many congratulations to all involved, especially our victorious First and Second VIII teams. We saw some nail biting finals!
Today I would like to share with you some reflections on student leadership at Queenwood. Having worked at coeducational schools as well as single-sex girls’ schools, the first point of difference to note is that our leaders, inevitably, are all girls. At co-ed schools, traditionally pupils tended to elect boys to the helm of their Prefect team until schools took measures to empower girls by having two Head Prefects, one male and one female. Quite clearly, even in our modern times gender equality still needs to be engineered.
The latter is the system I encountered in Scotland, at a school influenced by Plato’s philosophy. Using his terminology, the Head Prefects were called the Guardians of the school who watched over their community, just in the same sense in which Plato’s political guardians were appointed to watch over their fellow citizens in his utopian republic. What Plato’s concept has in common with our leadership ethos is that leaders are seen as kind and wise human beings who put their own interests last and who serve their community rather than rule it. The point we consistently make at Queenwood when talking to our Year 11 girls in the lead-up to prefect elections is emphasising that we see their appointments as a commitment to service rather than a prize for achievements.
The Head Prefect and Vice Head Prefect, ably supported by the Whole School Prefects, lead the Prefect team, provide the link between students and senior staff and work collaboratively on school-wide issues. We have House Prefects who are instrumental in drumming up competitive spirit for sports carnivals and music festivals. The Sports Prefects, Creative Arts Prefects and Social Justice Prefects work proactively with key staff in these areas.
In addition, we have introduced captains for each year group who work with the relevant Year Coordinator and help them with the organisation of year group events or address a year group, from a “big sister” angle, on themes such as friendship issues. We created the new role of Environment Captain who works with the Cleanwood team on environmental initiatives. The Languages Captain helps organise events such as Linguistics Olympiads or assists with the publication of Vox, Queenwood’s own Languages magazine. We also have lively Robotics, Public Speaking and Debating teams, and they are supported by the Captains of these disciplines. Obviously, both our Prefect and Captain portfolios are under constant review and subject to adaptation.
Gone are the days when Prefects had almost unlimited power to dish out ‘physical detentions’ such as running laps round the sports fields to the point of exhaustion or running unreasonable errands for older boys, not to mention the liberal use of the cane. Some schools, however, may still allow their responsible student leaders a certain degree of authority in exercising discipline, for example the permission to give detentions for uniform infringements. Girls are less inclined to abuse this power and more prepared to carry this duty out firmly, but not fiercely, in line with the advice of the ancient philosopher Seneca, who recommended that “he who has great power should use it lightly.” In that spirit, all of our Year 12 leaders share the responsibility for “hat duty” at the end of the school day, and it is a good experience for them to be held accountable for upholding our standards.
Whether the girls study for the HSC or the IB: academic work heats up in the final year of secondary school, and those who stress easily or who feel that they have to prioritise their academic work at the expense of their engagement with their leadership role need to consider carefully and in advance whether or not to apply for one. If they do and they are successful, the rewards for their commitment to service can be immense: exposure to public speaking, increase in confidence, time management, compassion, diplomacy and at the end of it all a great sense of achievement.
There are ample opportunities for every girl to lead, to take the initiative, to captain a sport or to offer ideas, which go beyond official leadership positions and are available across all year groups. And the opportunities are not limited to Year 12 either: they start in the Junior School with older girls buddying younger girls and Year 6 Captains being responsible for portfolios that mirror the Senior School Prefect roles. It is impressive to see the confidence in our Year 6 students presiding over Junior School Assemblies – a great preparation for Senior School.
In a girls’ school, girls are free from pressure to conform to any gender stereotypes. They can put their hand up for almost anything: starting an AFL club or a percussion ensemble, running a soccer activity or shining at Debating, getting muddy at camp or being a star in Physics or Chemistry. The freedom within a single-sex school context can be liberating and empowering, and the confidence thus gained is not easily lost in later years.
To end where I started - with a reference to Plato - I will quote from his Republic. Plato, who so often and in line with the attitudes of his era could be a grumpy old misogynist, is also credited with an enlightened statement that put him ahead of his time: If women are expected to do the same work as men, we must teach them the same things.
In a single-sex girls’ school, this is a given.