Are single-sex schools finished?

Single-sex schools are either the way to get ahead or perpetuating gender stereotypes. Who can you believe?

Girls vs boys' schools
Credit: Thomas Hedger

As you wander the leafy 240-acre campus of Benenden, in Kent, or through the concrete maze of the Barbican to City of London School for Girls, whether in the classroom or the playing field, the answer to “Who run the world?” – in the words of Beyoncé’s feminist anthem – is most manifestly: Girls!

Similarly, from Eton College to St Paul’s School, if there’s someone starring in a musical, or analysing a poem, it’s a boy.

I left my all girls’ day school in 1996. I loved it. My husband went to an all boys’ boarding school. And yet, as we look for the next stage in our children’s education, we have mixed feelings about what would best suit our daughter and son. 

The number of single-sex independent schools in Britain has roughly halved since the Nineties. Today, 12 per cent are girls-only; boys’ schools comprise just under 10 per cent. By contrast, the state secondary sector in England has virtually abandoned sex segregation: comprehensives (3260 in total) are overwhelmingly co-educational, with just 5 per cent all girls and 3 per cent all boys. Selective secondaries paint a different picture: girls’ schools make up 37 per cent of grammars, while 34 per cent of grammars are all boys.

Why are girls' schools more popular than boys'?

Until the late Seventies - about the time that many parents making school decisions today were born - promotion of single-sex schooling was often associated with traditional concerns over the “distractions” supposedly inherent in co-education. More liberal thinkers from the women’s movement started supporting single-sex education at around this time, saying that it was better for girls.

Because many of us base our thinking from around then, both conservatives and liberals may favour girls’ schools. But where does that leave boys? “Boys’ schools don’t get as much demand, so you end up with some very male-dominated mixed schools,” explains Alice Sullivan, a professor of sociology at University College London.

“We do still impose stereotypes that boys are good at maths and girls at English based on a very small average difference in attainment,” Professor Sullivan explains. “The research on single sex school shows that school structure can make a difference, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to change. 

“It really is about trying to counter these stereotypes which, if anything, seem even more prevalent than when I was growing up - and I’m 46. That’s something that schools should address whether they’re single-sex or mixed.”

But how can we best combat these stereotypes?

Defenders of single-sex schools maintain that children benefit from separate teaching. They cite evidence of inequities faced by girls in mixed classrooms (they’re overlooked for more assertive boys) while they claim the “more mature” girls are a “distraction” for boys. They highlight higher than average numbers of young people choosing to break away from gender stereotypes when choosing subjects at prominent girls’ and boys’ schools as conclusive proof that single-sex schools are superior (though that is often the case at selective co-ed schools, too). 

'Girls and boys are more alike than different'

Critics dismiss defences of gender segregation as pseudoscience, claiming that single-sex education perpetuates stereotypes: by segregating by sex, these schools suggest that gender is an insurmountable difference.

“Girls and boys don’t have different learning styles,” explains Christia Spears Brown, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky.

“There are more differences among boys and among girls than there are across boys and girls.” Children are affected by having members of the opposite sex in the classroom, she says, but that’s all the more reason to keep them together: “The effort should be placed on how to interact respectfully in the classroom, rather than saying: Keep the stereotypes intact, let’s just segregate.” 

'We aren’t all ardent feminists who don’t like men'

The new president of the Girls' Schools Association, which represents British private all girls’ schools, disagrees. Jane Prescott, a former soldier and current head of Portsmouth High School explains: “It’s not so much about the absence of boys as the celebration of girls. We aren’t all ardent feminists who don’t like men.”

She says being in a single-sex environment for education helps girls avoid stereotypes: “For example, I have more girls taking maths and sciences than arts or English.”

Plus, she adds, today’s single-sex school is a far cry from, say, my husband’s boys’ boarding school in the Nineties.

“People who are critical of the single sex environment often don’t have experience of it, or remember it from a very long time ago. People still think of girls' schools as St Trinian’s; they don’t think of them as modern, forward thinking educational environments that offer challenge and develop curiosity. 

“Girls today mix with boys and with other children from other schools,” she adds.

Still, some people with personal experience of single-sex education have rejected it. Tom Lawson is headmaster of Eastbourne College, in Sussex, after years spent in single-sex schools, as head of boarding at Winchester; he was educated at Eton. Today, he says he’s “in favour of mixed education with the vigour of a convert”. 

Credit: Thomas Hedger

Schools should reflect society

“The naturalness of mixed schools is better,” he says. “No one sees the education of girls and boys as being a separate mission today. Societal roles aren’t seen in that gendered way. Children don’t see those stark differences; why should schools?” he asks.

“The world has modernised. The data on girls’ performances, particularly in STEM subjects, is often raised. But are these schools, where girls achieve great results, good because they deny entry to half of the population? I think Eton and Winchester are good schools despite being single-sex.”

“Fundamentally,” he says, “it’s a lack of imagination that is stopping these schools from moving on.”

Of course, many are moving on. Just last week John Lyon, the north-west London day school which is part of the same foundation at Harrow, announced that it has broken with 144 years of tradition and will be admitting girls from September in Year 7. This move, John Lyon’s head, Katherine Haynes, explains, is a response to demand from parents, as well as a desire to reflect the community the school serves.

When Haynes joined the school 11 years ago, she was the first woman head of an all boys’ independent day school in the country. The world has changed, she explains. “In my own teaching career I’ve taught all girls and all boys and at mixed schools. I don't think any one type is better than another.”

“Good schools,” she says, “will be able to provide a wonderful education for the children they’ve got, rather than thinking they have to provide a particular delivery of education based on the gender of their children.”

What about social education?

As the world is co-ed, one of the most grievous failures of single-sex education in the eyes of its critics is the lack of opportunities for children to learn to collaborate with members of the opposite sex in an intellectual environment. This may have implications in the workplace; it may also influence the domestic sphere: Professor Sullivan’s large-scale 2011 study found that British men in their 40s were more likely to be divorced if they had attended an all boys’ rather than co-educational school.

“Getting into the workforce has always been a part people ignore; we don’t live in single-sex worlds,” says the psychologist Christia Brown. “Being able to interact with people of the other gender is also an important skill which needs to be developed. Isolating people from one another because they're different is never a way to make people work cooperatively and productively.”

Brown cites new studies suggesting that “even in university with students who have gone to single sex schools, they have more mixed gender anxienty about interacting with each other socially. This is partly because they don’t have friendships with the other gender. We’re shutting off a lot of emotional and social development that should go on.”

And this development doesn’t happen in isolated social events, she says. “Coming together in heteronormative ways - like a Scottish dancing class - is a romantic context. You’re not actually forming friendships in which you think of the person as a complete complex human,” Brown warns. 

When choosing a school for our own children, one of the biggest challenges is looking at the subject objectively. As Jane Prescott, head of the Girls’ School Association, observes, many of our prejudices are legacies of our own educations. And because of Britain’s specific educational history, many of its most selective schools are single-sex. 

The data won't answer this question for you

Still, when choosing a school for your child, if your main priority is good exam grades, the league table toppers suggest that the effects of single sex education are marginal. It is our own stereotypes that weigh more heavily than exam results. And it could be that the way to break down gender stereotypes is to mix everyone together and demand better. That, certainly, is the trend. If part of education is learning to play a role in broader society, perhaps school is the platform from which parents and children can call for change. 

“There’s a strand of thought in education which says that particularly in the teenage years, you’ve got kids who are forging their identities, including their gender identities, so during that period is it more helpful to put them together, when they tend to gender segregate,” says Timo Hannay, founder of the education data analysts, SchoolDash. “Is that better or worse than putting them into separate classrooms? There’s not anything in the data that will tell us the answer; it’s down to opinion or philosophy of education.”

But perhaps, to get back to Beyoncé, what we need is a consensus that no one group should run the world - inside or outside of the classroom.