Three myths peddled by the single-sex lobby need to be dispelled: firstly that pupils perform better academically at single-sex schools; secondly that girls and boys enjoy different learning styles, and thirdly that cultural factors make single-sex environments more conducive to learning.
In the UK, girls’ schools top the league tables, seeming to give legitimacy to the theory that girls at least perform better academically in a single-sex environment; statistics are regularly cited from exam results that appear to prove this.
In 2006, HMC commissioned a study that looked at academic performance in single-sex and co-ed schools across the globe, including Australia, the US, Europe and the UK. The study – the most comprehensive of its kind – concluded that “half a century of research has so far revealed no striking or consistent advantages for single-sex education”.
Professor Alan Smithers, who led the study, said, “The reason people think single-sex schools are better is because they do well in league tables. But [these schools] are generally independent, grammar or former grammar schools and they do well because of the ability and social background of the pupils…not because they are single-sex”.
A 2005 US Dept of Education study also concluded there was “no evidence” to suggest pupils in single-sex schools perform better than in co-ed. While girls on average will always tend to achieve more highly than boys, they achieve just as highly in co-ed schools.
Professor Smithers did find, though, that “40% of people who had a single-sex education wanted their own children to go to a co-ed school”.
A recent DCSF study concluded that there was “little evidence to support the notion that the dominant learning style of boys differs from those of girls”; to identify exclusively girl-centred or boy-centred learning strategies is therefore meaningless. The study also concluded that ways of teaching that appeal to boys are equally girl-friendly: “they characterise quality teaching, and as such are just as suitable and desirable for girls as for boys”.
Factors that have the biggest impact on learning – as proved by Professor John Hattie in his analysis of 180,000 studies involving 50M pupils world-wide – include quality of teaching, feedback, thinking skills and home encouragement - not separation by gender.
Aren’t single-sex schools gentler places?
Co-ed schools can be just as gentle and help to civilise environments that might otherwise be unforgivingly bitchy or brutal.
Don’t single-sex schools allow pupils to grow at their own pace and find themselves
Young people ‘find themselves’ not by navel-gazing but in relation to
others; how can they achieve this with any depth and maturity if half
the population goes unrepresented in their daily lives?
Don’t pupils get distracted by the opposite sex?
Of course they do; this is called growing up, and is part of what it
means to be a human being. Single-sex schooling seems based on an
unspoken fear of the opposite sex - fear of otherness, of difference.
Harry Potter and Hermione may distract each other, but there’s little doubt
that they are enriched and grow emotionally more mature in each other’s
company. In co-ed schools, girls and boys soon learn to be friends, to
work and play together, and feel more comfortable with each other as a
Don’t girls and boys become obsessed with their image in the company of the opposite sex?
Adolescent boys often seem to care more about what other boys think of
them, and the same for girls – perhaps a factor in the seemingly higher
incidence of eating disorders in girls’ schools.
Aren’t pupils in single-sex sex schools more likely to take risks with non-traditional male and female subjects?
Are boys more likely to pursue ballet in a boys’ school?
Will peer pressure lessen among girls opting for Design?
With positive role models of both genders on the staff, students can be
inspired to do anything. And with an enlightened curriculum like the
IB, where all pupils must pursue arts and sciences, this becomes a
Do girls feel inhibited in a co-ed setting?
Good schools enjoy a strong framework of pastoral care, together with a
culture that counters laddishness and sets clear boundaries, so there’s
no reason why either girls or boys should feel inhibited in each
Will pupils be less successful in sport at a co-ed school?
There will probably be a greater variety of sports at a co-ed school;
the A-teams will most likely compete with the best, though obviously
they might not enjoy the same strength in depth – this is a question of
numbers of girls and boys available, not quality – but then only
between 11 and 15 players comprise a 1st team anyway and so there are
limits on participation at the top level whichever school you choose.
The point of education is to prepare students for university, work and life. In all of these, teamwork, emotional intelligence, mutual understanding and the ability to relate to others are crucial attributes. These skills are better fostered in a co-ed environment that mirrors the conditions of real life.
Independent schools are already refined and exclusive places, socially determined by intelligence and the ability to pay fees. To further exclude students on the basis of gender seems archaic, even discriminatory, and a poor introduction to the world.
Single-sex schooling enjoys a long and honourable tradition, but remains a legacy of a time when men and women enjoyed vastly different rights and expectations. Now those expectations are similar, doesn’t it make sense to educate boys and girls together? The Armed Forces, the judiciary, even the Anglican Church have seen the light.
Parents should have the option, of course, and in many ways this is a lifestyle choice. But if we want our students to be leaders in an interconnected world, they need to realise that, while we might comprise two genders, we are still one species and must learn to work together. The sooner students embrace this fact, the more likely it is they will enjoy success in work, as well as emotional wellbeing and happiness in life.