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Girls’ Education

Recently I was interviewed by one of our younger students undertaking an enquiry into girls’ education and how it had changed over time. Where to begin? As a young teacher in the mid 1980’s, I, and no doubt also those Gen Xers attending secondary school at that time, can clearly recall the nation-wide campaign promoting equal opportunities for girls and its slogan, “Girls can do anything”.  Pinned on classroom walls throughout NZ were copies of an Education Ministry produced poster featuring young women carrying out various jobs, previously seen as the preserve of men. There has been a gender revolution in recent history that has transformed the role of women and their education in our country. This is cause for celebration but with any seismic social change there can also be unforeseen consequences.

Today, young NZ women have so many opportunities and choices. With girls outperforming boys at all levels of NCEA and exceeding men in university graduation it would seem that women are thriving. This perception has led in recent times to the focus moving to the educational underperformance of boys with the assumption that “the girls are all right”. But despite the positive markers, under the surface there are some concerning trends in teenage girls’ well-being with educational experts reporting a rise in female aggression, anxiety and depression. In a time of affluence and optimal opportunity for young women, why is this the case?

There is no one specific reason. Female adolescence occurs between the 12 and 25 years of age. This is a time of dramatic physical transformation and, as now evident through research using MRI scans, a time of rapid development of the brain. In this transitional period where a girl finds her identity as a woman she is particularly vulnerable.

Screened recently in Wellington’s cinemas was the grim documentary about Amy Winehouse. It traces the tortured life of this gifted jazz singer and song-writer. Sadly, she was not resilient. From the mischievous, sassy fifteen year old celebrating her birthday, hanging out with friends, to her public displays of drug induced, and drunken ‘ladette’ behaviour, the 27 year-old, bulimic Winehouse spiralled downhill to her death by alcohol poisoning. What a waste- and you wonder how could this tragedy be averted?

According to the Child Mind Institute, teenage girls suffer from depression at a rate more than two times greater than boys. This can be attributed to nature. Girls are more vulnerable because of their biology: they mature emotionally early and this makes them more susceptible to anxiety. However, nurture also plays a part and this is where the support of schools, families and society in general is important. Modern life can place considerable pressure on teenage girls as the media saturates us with unrealistic imagery of the ideal woman.

So let’s make sure our young women can confidently navigate both the opportunities and pitfalls of today’s world. It’s everyone’s role to ensure that the achievements of the last thirty years continue to be built upon. A stronger New Zealand will be the result.