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Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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GSA website: help is just a click away

Published By: The Independent - 19 Feb 2009

Hilary Wilce

The Girls' School Association is capitalising on its long experience of dealing with girls by launching a new website aimed at parents who are bringing up daughters.
And early responses to show that the site has the potential to be a worldwide winner. Five thousand people accessed it in the first three weeks after its launch, many from Asia and others from continental Europe and the United States, and word about it is spreading fast. “As far as we know it is the only site there is dealing specifically with issues concerning girls,” says Jill Berry, headmistress of Dame Alice Harpur School, Bedford and GSA President.

The site offers articles and guidance on subjects such as the developmental stages of girls, how girls can reach their full potential, eating disorders, bullying, internet safety and relationships. It also answers questions such as how to encourage a teenage girl to develop interests, how to help a girl settle at her new school, and what to do about unsuitable friends.

Most of the articles are written by present or former school heads.
“The GSA is a tight-knit bunch,” says editor Alison Morris, a former head of Manor House, a girls' school in Surrey. “We all tend to know each other, and we have many years of experience between us. There isn't a problem that hasn't passed through our doors one way or another over the years, and we always know who we can turn to deal with different issues.”

The site is also responsive to news stories, and has already turned its attention to anorexia, to guidance for single and divorced parents, and the question of whether dyslexia is a myth, following newspaper headlines.

“There is space for people to post comments and we are certainly hoping to draw people in to debate issues,” says Alison Morris. “We want this to be fully interactive and to be a forum where parents can talk to each other and support each other, just as sites like Mumsnet are for mothers with young children.” One of the first mothers to contact the site wanted help in finding where she could buy clothes for her larger daughter and was able to get suggestions from other parents.

The idea for the site sprang from research commissioned by the Association in 2007 about how parents went about choosing schools for their daughters. A thousand parents were asked about this and other issues. But parents sent back a clear message that they would welcome a single advice source on all kinds of social and educational topics, ranging from questions of body image to personal safety.

Their desire for help reflects an age of mounting parental anxiety, where the confidence of both mothers and fathers can be low and no-one seems too sure how to bring up children any more. Both state and independent school heads say they spend more time than ever helping parents with aspects of their children's education and welfare, and many privately admit astonishment at the high level of support that growing numbers of parents now need.

Alison Morris says the resources on the site tap into a deep well of experience and wisdom and are intended for all parents, regardless of where they send their children to school. However, as fee-paying schools brace themselves for the effects of a deepening recession, the site is also intended as a powerful marketing tool for spreading the word on the advantages of an independent, single-sex education for girls. It offers help in tracking down girls' schools, enthusiastic case studies of families who use them, and advice on how to find the fees to pay for them.

Jill Berry says “Of course we are absolutely championing the cause of girls' schools and we would not want to be dishonest about this. However we are also offering lots of sensible advice from people who really care about girls and who understand the issues around girls' learning. These issues are not only to do with independent schools, and anyway girls' schools are, in themselves, a very diverse group including schools of all types, from the highly academic ones to those who cater for many pupils with special learning needs.”

The site also includes the weekly national newspaper column written by Vicky Tuck, principle of Cheltenham Ladies College, and offers top ten tips for parents. These include: keep listening, set boundaries, avoid direct comparisions with others, and remember that academic success is only one way of succeeding.