Whether you have a toddler and are thinking about primary school, or have a primary schooler getting ready for secondary school, there are a range of important considerations to weigh up when choosing a school for your daughter. The process of schooling will see her exposed to a range of messaging that will either empower or restrict her. As having a choice is an essential component of developing responsible and strong young women, we look at five areas where we feel schools can empower or disempower girls by either offering, or removing, student choice.
What are the uniform choices for girls?
Most schools in Australia require students to wear a uniform. For girls however, these uniforms often require the wearing of dresses or skirts, with shorts being an option only on sports days (and sometimes only for the length of the sport lesson). We know from research that requiring girls to wear dresses and skirts results in girls doing less exercise, and is commonly remarked upon by girls as detrimental to their ability to be physically active. Additionally, some girls feel uncomfortable in dresses and skirts, and history is full of stories of girls receiving detentions for wearing shorts and trousers to school in protest. If you believe your daughter should have the right to choose between a range of suitable uniform options that include dresses, skirts, shorts and trousers, pay close attention to the uniform policy of potential schools, and look at the girls in that school to see what they are actually wearing. When choosing a school for your daughter, if that potential school does not offer uniform choice for girls, you may want to have a conversation with the school leadership team about making this change. You can contact the local representative of Girls Uniform Agenda for information and support in doing this.
What are her food choices – are they consistently healthy?
While all schools are expected to provide healthy tuckshop options these days, some schools do this better than others. The tuckshop is an important way that schools make money, and they may be tempted to allow more junk food more often, as it usually sells quite well. If it matters to you that your daughter is able to choose from options that include mostly healthy foods, be sure to check out your potential school’s tuckshop. It’s also a good idea to discuss with the principal, and the tuckshop convenor if you can access her or him, what the school ethos is around food choices. You may also want to find out what food options are best sellers, as your daughter is more likely to feel she can choose to eat well when surrounded by others who also choose well
What subjects are offered and who attends them?
Different schools will offer different subjects. Some primary schools, for example, offer a language (often Japanese) from the first year of schooling, while others do not introduce languages until Year 4. High schools can vary widely in what they offer, based on enrolment numbers and the importance they place on various areas. While subject choice may be less crucial in primary school, where your daughter should be exposed to a range of areas, the choice of secondary school should be guided in large part by your daughter’s interests. If you have a daughter who is passionate about chemistry and robotics, ensure not only that these subjects are offered at your potential school, but that girls are in these subjects in significant numbers. A school that genuinely believes girls belong in these areas will actively encourage and support girls to study these subjects, and this will result in good numbers of female students in these classes. Your daughter is far more likely to feel she can choose to continue studying in non-traditional female areas if other girls are choosing the same.
What are the extra-curricular choices for her?
Many schools offer a range of clubs, classes and activities that students can engage in before and after school. As with subject choice, it is important to consider the range of choices offered at your potential school, as these options limit and shape your daughter’s choices. If your daughter loves soccer and being a member of a team, ensure the school offers soccer as an extra-curricular option, and check out the gender split of the kids that play. As is true of most children and adolescents, your daughter is far more likely to feel she can choose to play soccer if a number of girls are already playing the game. As with any area in which your daughter is interested, try to have a chat with the teacher/coach responsible for that activity, and gauge their awareness of, and sensitivity to, the impact of gender on young people. A school that already has a range of boys and girls engaging in non-stereotypical behaviours and activities is most likely to allow your daughter to make choices that may not reflect what is common for most girls.
Break time – can she be active, engaged and/or creative?
Research indicates that break times at school are important opportunities for students to be active. Unfortunately, particularly in secondary school, activity levels of girls drop off dramatically, while levels for boys do not. For our daughters to choose active play at lunch times, a range of conditions need to be in place. When considering a school for your daughter, try to be there at break time and look at what the children are doing. Are the girls playing sport or active games, or are they sitting and talking? If the school is co-ed, are the boys and girls actively interacting together, or are the boys dominating the ovals and active areas? Does there appear to be any expectation or encouragement for girls to be active or passive? Again, consider your daughter’s uniform; does it encourage her to move freely and be active? While activity is important for girls and boys, consider your particular child. Will she want quiet activities at lunch time, perhaps away from others? Does the school provide her with choices as to how she spends her break times (library open, chess club, art club)? A school that provides a range of options encourages your daughter to choose to engage in activities that she genuinely enjoys.
Most schools will state that they want to develop strong, determined and successful young women. To do so however, important aspects of a girls schooling experience need to be within her control. When schools allow our daughters choices, they teach them that they are powerful, and that their viewpoint matters. Giving students the power to choose enables responsibility, as being able to make decisions for oneself leads one to be thoughtful, careful, actively involved and reflective. As we strive to have our daughters believe that their voice matters, and that they should not allow others to silence them, we need to give them many opportunities to practice exercising choice. In this way our daughters learn one of the most crucial life lessons while at school; that they themselves are in charge of their destiny, and that they are powerful.
Author: Dr Amanda Mergler, Senior Lecturer at QUT; co-founder of Girls Uniform Agenda