I was pleased to read this week that my old headmistress, Judith Carlisle, has launched a campaign to root out perfectionism in girls’ schools. Her initiative, which she is calling ‘The death of Little Miss Perfect’, is designed to ‘challenge perfectionism because of how it undermines self-esteem and then performance’.
After 11 years in selective all-girls education, I’ve experienced the perfectionism Ms Carlisle describes. I was, indeed, a prime example: disappointed with anything less than an A*, I felt relief rather than joy when I found out I’d been offered a place at Oxford. The pressure my classmates and I put on ourselves was immense. It extended into all areas of school life: from how highly we scored in maths tests to how much self-control we could demonstrate by our lunch choices. During Sixth-Form, it sometimes felt like every single girl in my year had an unhealthy relationship with food.
My peers and I put dangerous amounts of pressure of ourselves, but the school put next to none on us. We weren’t encouraged to take part in public speaking or essay competitions. No-one knew where they ranked in the class, and there were pitifully few academic prizes on offer. Everyone, we were assured, was a winner. The result was to make us all losers: by removing healthy outlets for the intellectual competition that naturally arises between bright teenagers, schools force girls to compete on more sinister grounds. Less debating leads to more dieting.
So Ms Carlisle is right: something needs to change. Unfortunately, she has the wrong idea about what that something is. Her approach is to spend a great deal of time talking about how perfection is an unhelpful ideal. She has had posters put up in classrooms emblazoned with motivational mottos (‘I can’t do it… yet’), brought in speakers to expound the dangers of unrealistic standards, and asked girls to repeat phrases like ‘nobody’s perfect’ at the end of assemblies. What my old headmistress fails to realise is that perfectionism is just a symptom of another problem — unlike at elite boys’ schools, schools like mine are nervous about allowing girls academic channels for their competitive instinct.
Most harmfully, Ms Carlisle now advises her students to allow fears of rejection to govern their future goals: ‘Don’t aim for Oxford if not getting in will destroy you’. Not getting in to Oxford would probably have destroyed my 17-year-old self. I was well aware of this when I submitted my application, and for the three torturous months that followed. I hope I wouldn’t have let Ms Carlisle discourage me from applying: failure-phobia should never be allowed to stop bright teenagers from reaching their full potential.
It’s not the case that putting clever and ambitious young people together inevitably leads to problems. At Oxford, the stakes are higher than they were at school. The criticism is harsher, marks are lower and the competition is cleverer. But yet the atmosphere is more mutually supportive, and the students are happier. The problems schools like mine face aren’t caused by the innate characteristics of high-achieving girls, but by misconceptions about how best to manage such students.
Ms Carlisle’s ‘let’s talk about it’ approach is the classic girls’ school response to problems, and it needs to go. It’s based around the idea that boys need dynamism, challenge and competition; but girls need teamwork, nurturing and feminist assemblies. This mollycoddling fails to prepare girls for the world of work by denying them the chance to develop some chutzpah. It perpetuates the very problems it aims to solve by creating the kind of claustrophobic, stifling environment where anxiety and eating disorders thrive.