Home > Analysis, Education > Single sex education: Singularly divisive?

Single sex education: Singularly divisive?

A report in The Guardian this week has revealed a surge in popularity of single sex education, especially for boys. Up until this year, there had been a five year trend towards co-educational schools (schools in which boys and girls are taught together). New figures show this has been bucked by a high proportion of parents opting for private education for their male children. The statistics show that 61% of the boys-only schools had taken more pupils this year, compared with 39% of the girls-only schools and 42% of the co-educational – or mixed-sex – schools. There are several political, social and legal concerns being raised as a result of this research – is single sex education a step in the right direction, or taking us back to the dark days of gender discrimination?

One of the strongest arguments in favour of educating boys and girls separately is the discovery of the fact that there are considerable biological differences in the ways that male and female brains function and therefore learn.

 It seems obvious, but even something as basic as the classroom environment can have a profound effect on learning. Research has indicated that something as simple as climate can have an impact; girls learn better when classroom temperature is warm, while boys perform better in cooler classrooms. If that’s true, then the temperature in a single-sex classroom could be set to optimize the learning of either male or female students. Similarly, the type of resources we use to teach can be gender specific. From an academic perspective, co-educational schools give students the opportunity to experience and adjust to different learning styles. Boys and girls can learn from each other’s approaches and learn to collaborate, each bringing their style to bear in working for common goals. This is claimed as an important learning opportunity by advocates of coeducation. For years we have been trying to reduce the inequality between men and women in terms of career choice. In co-educational schools, I think we have a better chance of achieving this.

Boys generally prefer to learn kinaesthetically, preferring physical lessons rather than sitting at a desk. On the other hand, many girls prefer the more traditional visual and oral learning methods, both of which are easier to deliver in our state education system. This can often mean we are better serving our female pupils to the detriment of boys who, parents could easily feel, are having certain learning needs neglected.

In the same vein, there is an argument that single-sex education can broaden the educational prospects for both girls and boys. This is based on the assumption that co-ed schools may have a tendency to reinforce gender stereotypes whilst single sex schools can take steps to break them down. From a curriculum point of view, this may reduce the inequalities between male and female achievement in certain areas, for example, if girls no longer need to compete with boys in a male-dominated subject such as maths, they may find it less off-putting. Equally, boys may be more comfortable with the traditionally feminine subjects like English. Indeed, there is evidence that boys and girls who have been educated in single-sex environments have a stronger preference for subjects that are stereotypically aligned with the opposite sex. We, as teachers, are often as guilty of stereotyping as anyone; we somehow automatically expect girls to like writing and boys like doing sums. It’s not uncommon to find teachers who treat girls differently from boys in maths, science, and practically-based subjects, giving them less attention and fewer learning opportunities. This kind of favouritism is impossible in a single-sex classroom, but how can we increase interest and motivation if this is the case?

Particularly within Secondary education, one of the major issues many parents have is a worry about levels of discipline and inappropriate behaviour. Supporters of single sex schools put forward the idea that we may at least be able to put the emphasis back on learning in single sex schools – that better results are facilitated as a direct consequence. Single-sex settings effectively ‘cash in’ here, as they are commonly believed to improve classroom behaviour. Hard evidence to support this view is hard to find, and it may just as easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than fact-based reality. Since girls mature earlier than boys, in a class by themselves they are relieved of the consequences of the acting out that boys of the same age may engage in. Of course this is a problem that needs to be addressed, but is the solution really to remove all contact? Surely the way to overcome it is with stimulating lessons and effective teaching which is inclusive of all pupils, irrespective of gender? Advocates of single sex education claim that, to a greater or lesser extent, behaviours around sexual maturity – such as showing off in lesson time – may be reduced in a single-sex environment. At an age when hormones become prevalent, it does seem that perhaps girls and boys would both benefit from having the worry of conforming to expectation removed, but removing the opportunities for them to work alongside each other may just as easily store up problems for the future. Eventually, they will have to not only work together but also live alongside each other as part of society. How can we say we are educating the adults of tomorrow if as children we don’t provide the opportunities to develop cohesion and acceptance.  

From the proponents of single sex schools, we often hear how high the levels of achievements are within single sex education. Well, yes, often this is true. But it is very doubtful that this is the reason for their results; in England, the vast, vast majority of single sex schools are independent and private. This automatically means lower class sizes, specialist teachers and stringent admissions policies which are often selective. These factors virtually guarantee higher levels of success, and it is therefore not attributable to gender.

As a teacher, I feel strongly that one of the major aspects of my job is to prepare my children for the world into which they will become citizens who make a purposeful contribution. My issue with single sex schools, is that this is made virtually impossible because by definition they create an artificial environment. In the ‘real world’, children will never again experience anything so restrictive, and heterogenous.  In a world where we all, thankfully, promote equal opportunities and do everything we can to eradicate discrimination, how can we justify bringing children up to believe that associating purely with others who are just the same as us is the right thing to do? How can we expect children to become understanding, compassionate human beings who recognise the importance of integration if we restrict their opportunities to develop these very skills? The overriding benefit of co-educational schools is that they are microcosms of society. Since men and women are certain to interact in the workplace and in society in general, say proponents of coeducational schools, school can be an environment in which gender differences come to be understood, preparing students for life after formal education.

I fear we are spending too much time being distracted from the burning issue, that of raising achievement for all. Instead of querying the pros and cons of single sex education, what we really need to do is ensure that we raise the standard of teacher training in this country. Guarantee that no matter which school a child is being educated in, parents can be assured they are being taught the knowledge, skills and qualities needed to become a fully-functioning member of our society. To quote Guardian journalist Oli de Botton, ‘It sounds obvious, but boys (and girls) will do better if they are taught better by teachers who understand their individual needs. That means skilled practitioners using the curriculum creatively to engage and excite every single child in front of them – regardless of their gender.’




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