We all know children don’t always enjoy school. But why is that?
After all, many of our girls tell us how much they love the feeling of learning something new. And they really value socialising with their friends at school too.
It’s not just our girls either. The Children’s Commissioner finds that this generation of children understands school will always be challenging in some way, but still really value education as a priority.
But girls still aren’t happy at school – despite out-performing boys academically, they remain less happy with school overall.
In our recent focus groups, we asked girls what makes a good day and a bad day at school. Their thoughts and feelings about school ranged from very positive to very negative:
- “Everything about school is a bad day – it’s stressful.” – GFS girl
- “I love everything (about school) – it all makes me happy and joyful.” – GFS girl
Even those differing responses show how differently the school experience can be for girls. That’s because the more barriers in a girls’ life, the more likely she is to struggle with school.
Leaving children experiencing difficult situations in life or at school, such as bullying, harassment or extreme anxiety, are facing barriers beyond the challenges of learning. Naturally, gender bias comes into play here too, creating additional challenges for girls at school.
This article really looks through that question, looking at our data from our upcoming Girls In Focus Report, and external data too. That means this article gets a bit long, so to help you navigate we’ve broken it up into different sections as much as possible.
Feel free to scroll through and look for a title that particularly grab at you, or read it in full to get the whole GFS picture!
Gender inequality happens everywhere – including school.
A quarter of all secondary school teachers say they witness gender stereotyping and discrimination in their school daily, with an additional quarter saying they see it weekly.
It isn’t just teachers of older students witnessing gender bias, either. In fact, over a third of primary school teachers say they see gender stereotyping in their school weekly, and over half say they witness it on at least a termly basis.
Of course, schools aren’t responsible for creating gender inequality. Gender inequality is a much wider social problem, but teachers and children are both part of that society.
So, without even realising it, they may be repeating behaviours they’ve been taught.
36% of female students in mixed-sex schools say they have personally been treated differently on account of their gender, compared to only 15% of male students.
But studies do show schools can shape gendered behaviour. This is almost never done with the direct intention to limit girls.
But the indirect and inaction against the problem can be just as harmful. However, many schools are already aware of growing sexism in schools and keen to address the issue.
But to act against discriminatory behaviours (gender bias) they may need support from specialty organisations like GFS, to show them how to tackle the issue.
“I like PE – football, rugby and tennis. They’re fun, but people (boys) say I’m bad at them.” – GFS girl
If schools are left without this necessary support, gendered behaviour will continue to flourish in the enclosed school environment.
This impacts girls’ developmental and educational experiences, and it holds them back from succeeding beyond gender expectations.
It also means that teachers often have lower expectations of boys than girls, which leaves girls with more responsibility to teach and control boys’ behaviour.
“Boys get involved when the teachers are helping me – it’s annoying.” – GFS girl
This creates added stress for girls and can leave them feeling they aren’t receiving equal support.
As a result, girls feel unable to be themselves. In the school environment, girls feel judged and pressured to conform to fit stereotypes.
In our own surveys, girls as young as six tell us they can’t be themselves. And, According to Plan UK, girls do not feel they are being taken seriously by teachers or being respected as young women.
“I get told off for bringing in fidgets, but the boys don’t. This makes me upset.” – GFS girl
And while girls continue to outperform boys academically across age groups, boys are still much happier with school than girls are, according to The Good Childhood Report 2022.
The unhappiness girls develop in school impacts their overall mental well-being and lives outside school.
In the Good Childhood Report 2018, girls who said appearance-related comments and behaviours were widespread at school had much lower happiness with their appearances and overall lives.
“People assume stuff based on how you look. People call be blondie because of the colour of my hair and say that it’s fake and that no one likes me.” – GFS girl
The same does not apply to boys.
There are many different parts of a girls’ identity that impact the way she experiences school.
Girls with more disadvantages naturally face more difficulties. And for better or worse, the competitive school environment often demands uniformity.
Of course, this is done to try and make the same opportunities available to everyone. But it can cause more stress for children with differences that make accessing those opportunities more difficult.
This is especially girl children, already struggling to feel safe and secure in school.
“There is so much pressure, it’s such a hard environment…I can’t find the words but before the holidays I had really poor mental health, I wasn’t sleeping and I was getting sick. The school don’t care, my dad has even asked me if I want to move schools because it’s that bad.” – GFS girl
For example, girls with disabilities are more likely to experience bullying in school. While girls who learn differently or have learning disabilities experience more stress about learning and homework than girls who don’t.
Girls with conditions like Anxiety, ADHD and Autism shared some of their fears during our Girls In Focus research project:
- “A bad day at school makes me feel angry and uncontrollable. People laugh at me and I get into trouble for crying. Sometimes I don’t go into school if I feel really bad.”
- “I have anxiety, people make me anxious, especially people who don’t know me. Sudden change and cover teachers make me stressed. There are a lot of cover teachers.” – GFS girl
- “I didn’t want to go into school recently because I didn’t have my fidgets, or my watch and I need that to keep track of the time. School can’t sort things out over the weekend, so it means if I’m worried on Friday I’ll be worried still on Monday.” – GFS girl
Girls from low-income backgrounds are also more likely to be stressed out about school, because they’re already stressed about their living situation.
While girls who are bullied or struggling to make friends are more likely to feel unsafe, insecure and unable to engage.
“School doesn’t feel very safe because there’s groups of mean people in every class.” – GFS girl
This leaves them less likely to speak up in class and less happy with school overall. And as we learned in our last article – children who experience more victimisation in school are more likely to have poorer academic performances.
“When I talk to my friends, I feel normal but when I have to talk in front of my class, I feel like it sounds weird in my head, and it makes me talk weirdly.” – GFS girl
While girls with differences are more likely to be bullied in childhood, the likelihood of experiencing bullying does decrease as they get older. But the results of bullying can be long-lasting and stick with them throughout their lives.
For girls in puberty, bathroom access becomes both a health issue and safety issue.
As they age, girls feel increasingly more restricted within the school environment. School toilet policies, for example, do not always work for girls menstruating in school.
With nearly 61% of girls having issues accessing toilets in lessons when on their period, it’s no surprise that girls in the UK are missing over 3.5 million days of school every year because of period inequality.
“The toilets are disgusting. People pee on the floor and you can’t go to the toilets in lessons. You can only go at break and lunch, but the queues are so long so you can’t get in and lunch break is short. People are always on their phones in the toilet.” – GFS girl
Some schools require special permission from teachers to use the toilet during class, leaving menstruating girls too self-conscious to ask and often denied when they do.
Period shame from their peers, especially boys, often makes the situation worse. In Plan UK’s Wales Insight’s Report, girls said boys go through girls’ bags and take ‘selfies’ with their period products.
“Boys bullying others, there is my boy in my class who is always picking on someone.” – GFS girl
Girls are then dismissed as ‘being on their period’ if they showed emotion, while those who haven’t started menstruating yet face different forms of bullying.
As they get older, girls experience new forms of harassment and feel less safe.
In 2021, Ofsted made the concerning conclusion, that sexual harassment has become ‘normalised’ among school-age children.
By 2022, Girl Guiding’s Girls’ Attitude Survey reported that 17% of girls and young women aged 11 to 16 say the fear of sexual harassment holds them back at school, in the Midlands, London and the South. That number grows even higher to 22% of girls and young women in the North.
“I’ve been followed because I look different. Boys come into the toilet or wait outside school for me. Teachers say they can only do something if they see it – so this doesn’t help when it happens outside college.” – GFS girl
They also found that fear of sexual harassment is the highest for girls living in areas of high deprivation. Only 9% of girls are held back by this fear in areas of higher income, compared to 16% of girls in areas of lower income.
“Boys swear at me and about me and it makes me feel sad.” – GFS girl
More concerningly, they revealed that one in five girls and young women aged 11 to 21 across the UK feel unsafe in school.
The reasons why girls’ feel less safe and happy in school than boys reflect the same social issues we experience as adults.
“I’m the only girl on my table. Someone is always mean to me on my table and says mean things. Makes me feel upset, I don’t like the boys.” – GFS girl
By not addressing these issues and putting a stop to bias-based behaviours in childhood, cycles of inequality continue, following girls as they become women.
When girls are already anxious and feeling unsafe, everyday stress and transitions hit harder.
In focus groups, GFS girls highlighted the transition to secondary school as being particularly hard on their self-esteem due to increased concerns about being judged and not fitting in.
School is a place where girls can spend time with friends but navigating these relationships can be hard. This leaves many girls pushing themselves to fit in with others, rather than being themselves.
“I’m happy when people talk to me but sad when they leave, and I feel lonely a lot. I’m new at school, only been there a few weeks so I am making friends, but I had friends back where I used to live. Sometimes I cry before going to school because I feel lonely.” – GFS girl
While girls all share in the stress of uneven expectations, coursework and school transitions, some girls have more support outside of school than others.
For example, parents of girls from higher-income families are more likely to take an active interest in their daughter’s education.
Of course, that doesn’t mean lower-income parents are actually less interested in their children’s education.
What it means is that parents in lower-income or single parent households are more likely to work long hours or have multiple jobs, leaving them with less time outside of working hours to help with homework or attend school events.
But girls need access to support to cope with stress or difficult situations at school.
“I struggle with my homework, and it stresses me out. I got a detention for a homework that’s not on the system, sometimes teachers give us no warning. We have 12 homework’s a week, it’s too much on top of school. My parents have complained, and I spoke to the headteacher, but he wouldn’t change it and I was disappointed. The most I’ve had is 18 homework’s in a week.” – GFS girl
The GFS girl mentioned above is in a tricky situation, and while her situation hasn’t changed, her parents were able to speak out in support of her. This can help show she isn’t alone and that her voice is being heard by someone (her parents).
“I have anxiety, people make me anxious, especially people who don’t know me. Sudden change and cover teachers make me stressed. There are a lot of cover teachers.” – GFS girl
Girls who are not able to access an active support system will struggle with their resilience and confidence not just in school, but later in life too.
Stress over homework, exams and school transitions is normal to an extent. But girls are facing uneven stress and are lacking support to develop healthy coping mechanisms and resilience.
“Makes me worried, gives me anxiety and makes me not want to go to school, but also not want to go home because we have so much homework. We had to get 100% on Maths homework and 80% on Educate – I had panic attacks because I had to do it so many times to get the mark. I spent all evening doing my science homework. I need to do my homework on the day I get it otherwise it gives me anxiety.” – GFS girl
When girls are under constant, unequal pressure, it can negatively affect their mental health and well-being. As girls enter their stressful transitional years, we see a rise in levels of psychological distress.
“I feel pressure about the future and making decisions about what to do next, stress about future goals (yr. 12 girl)” – GFS girl
By the time they’re 14 girls have begun scoring higher in psychological distress, and as they move into late adolescence, they see higher rises in levels of psychological distress (Young People’s Mental and Emotional Health, Education Policy Institute).
Having a safe place and supporting people to talk to can make all the difference.
Girls with a support system, such as close family, friends or non-competitive after-school activities, will still experience stress, but will have healthy ways to relax and decompress from stress. They’ll also have better access to coping mechanisms to help them deal with challenges.
- “GFS has helped me with standing up for myself at school against bullies.” – GFS girl
- “GFS has helped me with my anxiety. There’s lots of people here which I don’t normally like, but I’ve got to know them, so it’s made me trust people more.” – GFS girl
- “There’re no arguments here, you can try new things and have lots of experiences and it’s safe.” – GFS girl
In fact, Public Health England found that a supportive school culture and ethos is related to positive health and wellbeing for young people.
Many things contribute to school culture, including how much students feel connected to their school, as well as how safe they feel.
Naturally for girls, that means a reasonable feeling of safety from sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. And it also means seeing that their school cares enough to work towards putting a stop to it when it does happen.
We can challenge inequality where it starts, by teaching children to think beyond bias and stereotypes, with age-appropriate activities that help them to think critically about gendered assumptions.
“I’ve got better at helping girls know that it’s okay to be a girl and you can do what you want.” – GFS girl
The GFS programme is designed to give girls the skills and confidence to face life’s challenges.
Enforcing girls’ confidence means giving them the ability to challenge gender assumptions and bias through play, crafts and activities. For older girls, this can include debate, discussion and campaigning.
“My confidence in my social life (has grown) since before I came to GFS. When I went back to school, I put my hand up more.” – GFS girl
Part of addressing the issue of gender inequality in youth settings means acknowledging the fact that girls need space away from boys to grow beyond gender expectations. So, that’s what GFS provides!
Studies show that single-gender spaces encourage girls to take more risks, express themselves and develop their confidence.
“It’s free from boys here so it makes me relax.” – GFS girl
In mixed gender settings, boys tended to dominate the space which reduced girls’ confidence. But at GFS girls thrive.
GFS is a place where girls feel accepted and more able to be themselves, and form genuine, supportive friendships as a result
“GFS has helped me with standing up for myself at school against bullies.” – GFS girl
The skills girls have learnt at GFS help at school too, by giving them more confidence to speak up or try new things. It also improves their abilities to mix with new people and make friends.
The GFS programme teaches girls resilience and builds their ability to believe in themselves before they reach the crisis of confidence girls’ experience in their teen years.
“I’ve got more courage. I can jump off the high pole now when I used to be scared.”
The programme is non-competitive, and results are measured by each girl’s personal growth.
Of course, children don’t learn or speak about gender inequality the same way we would as adults, but when they’re shown from a young age that it’s normal for girls to lead, to play football, to be doctors, it teaches more unbiased thinking for and about girls.
“There’re no arguments here, you can try new things and have lots of experiences and it’s safe.” – GFS girl
At GFS, we’re experts in girls, and supporting and empowering them with the resilience to face challenges in an unequal world. But rethinking stereotypes has powerful outcomes for boys too!
Rethinking gender roles can help teach boys they can be compassionate, show their emotions, express affection their friends, and be interested in stereotypically feminine things too. But first, they be taught not to look down on girls and ‘girly’ behaviours and interests.
Our workshops are currently only available in Liverpool and Swansea. But you can sign up to our general newsletter you can be among the first to know when our schools work is ready to expand. And you’ll get all the updates on our work and the launch of our full Girls In Focus Report too.