When the signs at Sneha Lala's school were defaced, school signs were defaced, ‘girls’ was replaced with ‘sluts’, ‘prostitutes’ and ‘lesbians’Andreas Nordh

My journey through education isn’t exactly your usual story. I started off normally at a bog-standard mixed primary school, but after that I went to an all-girls’ grammar school from years 7 to 11, then an all-boys’ grammar school with a mixed sixth form to do my A-levels, and finished up at Murray Edwards for university.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my time at secondary school: I met friends for life and gained confidence in both myself and my academic abilities. But a lot of that was despite going to an all girls’ school, not because of it. An all-female environment at such a young age is undoubtedly strange. Nowhere did this come out more strongly than at school discos with our partner school: girls huddled to one side of the hall, boys to the other – no interaction bar the awkward giggly boy sauntering over to ask a girl for her number, egged on by a sea of friends behind him. Boys were seen as strange specimens that couldn’t be understood. They were not humans, let alone potential friends and colleagues. At best, they were potential boyfriends, and figures to be ogled and obsessed over.

“While public perception of all-girls’ schools may initially seem harmless, these stereotypes lead to an acceptance of sexism and homophobia”

This attitude was not limited to girls. When interacting with the lower years at my sixth form, a worryingly misogynistic attitude was revealed. My friend was South Asian, wore glasses, and worked with the lower years to fundraise: she was immediately nicknamed Mia Khalifa. When I volunteered to tutor English, the teacher didn’t feel comfortable to place me with year 10’s knowing the pervasive sexism and objectification of women that prevailed among the boys. To them, girls were not seen as fellow people, but simply as sexual objects.

Single-sex schools as concepts are vastly different from colleges at university. While at Murray Edwards you have the opportunity to interact with all genders, it is made explicitly clear that non-binary people are allowed to attend the college and anyone can be invited to social spaces and accommodation. This is not the case at single-sex schools. Excluding extracurricular activities, a teenager’s primary social interaction becomes their school. Many go years without properly conversing with the opposite gender, let alone forming friendships.

What’s more, in many single-sex schools there is no explicit accommodation for non-binary people. Young people join these schools at 11 and sometimes stay till the age of 18. They start as children and leave as young adults. Those seven years are vital for exploring sexuality and gender, but at a single-sex school young people face unnecessary difficulties. If they transition during their time at school, often there are no provisions and they are made to feel acutely like an outsider. Many schools have the gender which they accommodate in the title, further adding to the sense of alienation.

"Yet when stereotyping and public perception hones in on sexuality, it became harder for people with sexualities not fitting the heteronormative paradigm to come out"

There are stereotypes around single-sex schools, particularly all-girls’ schools, that make gender and sexual identity struggles seem clichéd, delegitimising genuine sexual and gender exploration. The public perception of all-girls’ schools was summed up when my school signs were defaced. The word ‘girls’ was replaced with ‘sluts’, ‘prostitutes’ and ‘lesbians’. Why wouldn’t you be lesbian when everyone who surrounded you was female? While public perception of all-girls’ schools may initially seem harmless, these stereotypes lead to an acceptance of sexism and homophobia. People coming out as gay are sometimes met with amplified denial and told their sexuality is because of their environment, and therefore not valid. Yes, there were lesbians in my school, yes, there were bisexual people, yes, there were straight people, and yes, there were people all across the spectrum. Yet when stereotyping and public perception hones in on sexuality, it became harder for people with sexualities not fitting the heteronormative paradigm to come out. They were met with comments that their sexuality was a phase, linking their sexuality to the institution where they received their education.

Then there was the fear of stigma within the school, and I found this to be an acute problem in both all-boys’ and all-girls’ schools. People’s fear of coming out was exacerbated through everyone around them being of the same gender. This was particularly a problem at my all boys’ school where among the lower years there was a laddish culture that saw homophobia normalised. Those who were gay were left terrified to come out for fear that all of their peers would assume they were sexually attracted to them.

Single-sex schools are meant to improve confidence, yet they created an environment where non-cisgender and non-heterosexual individuals are afraid to express their own identity. According to my old school, their secondary aim is to remove distractions from studying. Herein lies the problem. Firstly, there is an inherent assumption of heteronormative behaviour: the school’s own message subliminally undermines other sexualities which can be incredibly harmful for LGBT+ students. Secondly, through being told at a pivotal point in their lives that the opposite sex is not a human being, but a sexual distraction, students are encouraged to not treat others as peers, friends, or even humans, but as sexual objects.

Young people deserve an education that prepares them for all aspects of life, not just educational. They deserve an environment where they are fully able to develop, not just academically. How can teenagers be adequately prepared for a world of work and life outside of the rigid educational system when they are rigidly kept separated from the opposite sex? The single-sex system lets down its students. It is time these outdated institutions are left where they belong, in the past

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