Benchmark of learning for girls

GIRLS who attend single-sex schools earn more in later life and are more likely to choose science and maths than those who share their classes with boys. But despite compelling evidence of their positive effects, all-girls' schools have diminished in number in Edinburgh.

Today, only three all-girls' schools remain in the city – Mary Erskine, St Margaret's and St George's. Yet it wasn't always so. In 1966 the Capital boasted nearly a dozen ladies' colleges, which educated largely middle-class, local girls as well as daughters of eminent military men, foreign consuls and overseas representatives. The release of the new St Trinian's film, modelled on the real-life St Trinnean's, an Edinburgh school for young ladies which closed in 1946, is set to thrust girls' schools back into the spotlight.

Infamous for throwing custard pies and distilling alcohol in the science lab, the schoolgirls of the original 1954 St Trinian's movie were every teacher's worst nightmare – and many a mischievous pupil's inspiration.

According to a new book by Alasdair Roberts, which traces the history of Edinburgh's female-only colleges from their Victorian beginnings, the schools were in reality rather less wild.

In 1902, Dr Charlotte Ainslie arrived as head of George Watson's Ladies' College, also known by its location, George Square, where she ruled with a rod of iron.

A former pupil Dorothy Nicolson, who herself took charge at the school in the 1940s, laughed to remember when she cheerfully greeted Miss Ainslie in town on a Saturday morning. On the Monday, she was summoned to her presence and told it must never happen again.

Alasdair, 69, who grew up in Trinity, says: "Dr Ainslie was a god-like figure. But there was never any corporal punishment in girls' schools. Girls' were kept under control by expectations they would behave and by strong-minded women."

Alasdair believes there are fewer girls' schools in the city today because of mergers along the way and social factors.

St George's is a far cry from the riotous St Trinians' image. Steeped in history, it was founded almost 120 years ago by a group of campaigning women determined to see equal education for women and girls. Gung-ho pupils at the Windmill Brae school in the wealthy enclaves of Ravelston and Murrayfield, are more likely to be braving the chill of the Antarctic, heading to Russia for a history tour or travelling to Adelaide for a six-week exchange visit, than bashing each other over the head with lacrosse sticks. "There might be a bit of hockey stick bashing," laughs Donald Morris, whose two teenage daughters are St George's girls, "but it's all good natured stuff. Besides, I'm certain any St Trinian's effect would be managed ably by the staff there."

Donald, a chartered accountant from Murrayfield, and his wife Jennifer, both 50, opted to send daughters Camilla and Phillippa to St George's simply because they liked it. "There was a breadth of opportunities and the courses, the extra-curricular activities that attracted us, and really nothing to do with it being an all-girls' school," he explains.

"It certainly hasn't affected Camilla's ability to mix socially - she's now at Durham University doing geography, maths and physics – courses that tend to be fairly male dominated."

The school's pioneering founders would be delighted. Their campaign for equal provision in education for women and girls paved the way for women to train as secondary school teachers – they launched Scotland's first training college of its kind – and within four years of St George's being established, Scottish universities bowed to pressure and finally admitted women.

Camilla's sister Phillippa, 16, is in her lower sixth year, studying for highers. Both, adds Donald, have benefitted from the all-girls' environment.

Susan Douglas, 46, from Newington, attended St Denis', which later amalgamated with Cranley and then St Margaret's. She was so inspired by her own experience of single-sex education that she sent her daughters Lorna, 18, and Fiona, 15, to St Margaret's on East Suffolk Road.

She says: "When we decided on St Margaret's for Lorna we were shown around by a sixth year and I thought, if Lorna can be that confident, the world will be open to her. Last year, Lorna was the girl who took everyone around."

Eileen Davis, principal of St Margaret's, believes girls are more confident in a classroom without boys. "There's no question of them saying 'I can't do that, it's a boys' thing' or 'I don't want to do that because the boys will laugh at me'," asserts Eileen."

Contrary to the image of teenage rebellion at St Trinian's, Alistair tells how, when one master moved to Edinburgh Ladies' College in Queen Street at the end of the Great War after teaching Watson's boys, he was struck by the difference at an assembly of more than 1200 girls. The master wrote: "It was the manners of the drawing room at Queen Street."

Mrs Davis concurs that keeping order is less of a problem at a girls' school. "It's quite different in terms of discipline at a girls' school. There is no showing off in the same way as the boys. Gossip is what they do best."

As for the old perception of prim school mistresses telling girls off for being spotted with members of the opposite sex, the principal says this is definitely an attitude consigned to the past. "It's not the case now that girls talking to boys are in trouble," she laughs. "We have lots of activities with boys' schools, particularly Merchiston."

So with such a modern outlook, is Mrs Davis looking forward to watching the new St Trinian's film? "Yes I am," she replies enthusiastically. "It's all about girls having a sense of initiative and fun. There's a lot in that film that will be interesting today."

Crme de la Crme: Girls' Schools of Edinburgh by Alasdair Roberts is published by Steve Savage Publishers (19.50).

SCHOOLED IN NOTORIETY

THE real St Trinnean's was founded in Edinburgh by Miss Catherine Fraser Lee in 1922. There were just 60 girls when it opened in October 1922, in a building at 10 Palmerston Road, just off Grange Road.

Miss Lee practised the Dalton system of education where the emphasis was on self-discipline, rather than school-imposed controls. St Trinnean's achieved notoriety when Miss Fraser Lee punished the whole school by insisting that pupils ate their meals backwards for a term.

Later the school moved to St Leonard's House, off Dalkeith Road, before the outbreak of war forced the girls and staff to be evacuated to Galashiels.

The Belles of St Trinian's, starring Edinburgh actor Alastair Sim, hit the silver screen in 1954 in a film based on cartoonist Ronald Searle's illustrations of a fictional boarding school, inspired by the real-life St Trinnean's.