Conference debates single-sex schools.jpg

Conference debates single-sex schools


NEW FINDINGS in the UK suggest that single-sex schools do not help pupils to attain better academic results.

American researcher, Rosalind Barnett, a senior scientist at the women’s Studies Research Centre, claims to have assembled data, which refutes experts who claim that mixed schools disadvantage pupils. Supporting Barnett, who participated in a recent conference on the subject, is Dr. Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, which has had a mixed-sex sixth form for 30 years. “My own experience as a head, as a teacher and as a parent, is that children thrive in co-educational environments,” says Dr. Seldon.

Barnett and Seldon will be trying to counter the views of the pro-segregation lobby. These include the American psychologist, Dr. Leonard Sax, the founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education and the author of a bestselling book, Why Gender Matters. Dr. Sax, one of the most influential advocates of separate schooling, contends that male and female brains work differently. He claims that girls hear better, so react worse if teachers shout at them. He also maintains that boys excel under stress – while girls flounder – and that female brains adapt to languages earlier.

A strange anachronism

Segregated schooling has always struck me as an anachronistic idiosyncrasy of Western society. Of course, many independent schools, some of which operate a single-sex policy, do produce better qualified pupils. This leads some parents to conclude, falsely, that segregation of the sexes has contributed to the academic success of their children. The true reason for this attainment gap lies elsewhere. Single-sex schools are mostly independent, fee-paying establishments. Class sizes are smaller and the children tend to be more academically gifted because the schools operate selection. The old adage – hospitals are dangerous places because a lot of people die there – is a pertinent analogy. Hospitals are only dangerous – obviously – because sick people congregate there. Similarly, single-sex schools produce better results because their pupils come from more privileged backgrounds.

Segregation probably has little bearing on academic performance. But, the behaviour of schoolboys is likely to worsen without the presence of girls. Watch any group of young men, and you will witness a microcosm of a fascist society. A leader, the head of the gang, will ‘emerge’ from the group, not through a democratic process of selection, but purely by dint of his personality or power to terrorise others. The other boys curry favour with the leader, and then jostle for position and influence in the pecking order. The result is a hierarchy of power based on macho credentials. Without the presence of girls, boys tend to regress to the mentality of the jungle – it’s often brute force that rules over reason. Girls have a tempering effect on boys’ behaviour. They also tend to mature quicker than boys – the average 15-year-old girl is far more sophisticated than a boy of the same age. Their presence reduces disruption and makes boys more likely to reign in excessively unruly behaviour.

We learn from the

opposite sex

There is another, very important, reason why single-sex schooling is detrimental to the intellectual and, particularly, emotional development of pupils. Simply, we learn from each other, not just from teachers. We are always informed that university is an immensely valuable experience – not only for the intellectual training – but also from the social stimulus we derive from meeting diverse people. Nobody suggests that lectures at university should be divided on grounds of gender. So why should it be any different at school? Given that we spend most of our lives working and living with the opposite sex, this artificial divide seems perverse. Many boys and girls who endure the solitariness of single-sex schools will emerge at 18 feeling that, to repeat the title of a famous book, Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.

I felt like I was from Pluto when I left a single-sex school at the age of 18. I have heard this from many boys and girls who endured this form of educational apartheid.

An increasing number of single-sex schools, in Britain at least, are now opting to go co-educational. Over the last decade, 130 independent schools that were single-sex have either become co-educational or closed down. In the state sector, the number of single-sex schools has fallen in the past 40 years, from nearly 2,500 to just over 400. I hope this process continues.