Single sex or co-ed? Which is better in terms of school choice? Alun Jones, the new and first male president of the Girls’ Schools Association, has told The Sunday Times that boys “should be protected from the classroom domination of girls by being taught in single-sex classes between the ages of 11 and 16.” Is he right?
With the expansion in the number of comprehensives, over 98 per cent of maintained schools are now co-ed, the option of single sex education is one more often faced by parents of children in the private sector. And in this sector, too, the number of single sex schools, especially all-boys’ schools, has been falling – down to 250 from 460 in the mid-1990s, according to the Independent Schools Council which represents most private schools.
The real, unmentioned and unmentionable reason for many boys’ schools going co-ed is to improve public exam results. There is many a high-flying co-ed school today that would have remained languishing in second division exam league table obscurity as a boys’ school had it not been for the arrival of bright academic girls. In the very few cases where the reverse has been true and a girls’ school has become co-ed, this has more often than not been a response to falling numbers and financial difficulties.
Surviving single sex -schools may be thriving and in robust health, but how likely is it that most parents will decide in their favour when the arguments for co-ed, based around a notion of ‘preparation for life’, seem to be so seductive and so persuasive?
However, if parents were to actually ‘sit in’ on a primary school co-ed lesson they might have quite a surprise. Invariably, the girls dominate. They tend to be more mature, more articulate and more diligent than the boys. Precocious Hermione Grangers, of Harry Potter fame, are as much the norm as the exception. This means that, sadly, more often than not, the boys are dominated. Only when it comes to catching a ball in a games lesson do the girls seem to fall hopelessly behind the boys. Girls and boys are inclined to develop verbal skills and the skills of physical coordination at a very different pace.
At primary school level, the academic confidence and progress of boys are often diminished if they are in competition with girls. The GSA president is guilty of underselling the case for single sex schools when he sees their role confined only to the 11-16 age group: “In the most formative years when adolescence is hitting with a vengeance, boys should be educated separately.” The truth is that, almost by definition, “the most formative years” are the early years when the foundations of personality and learning are set in place. With regard to schooling, the passing years become progressively less important. The ‘damage’ or the ‘advantage’ in life comes early!
Commenting on the GSA president’s call for single sex teaching between 11 and 16 The Sunday Times informs its readers that: “Experts have long claimed that girls taught in single-sex classes are more likely to take science and maths subjects at GCSE…”. In fact, science and maths are both, ‘more or less, ‘compulsory’ for all pupils - both boys and girls - at GCSE
At A-Level, however, things are different. If you wish to assess a secondary school, ask the Head what percentage of girls are taking maths, further maths, physics and chemistry at A-Level and what percentage of boys are taking English and foreign languages. It is the question that heads of co-ed schools dread to hear. The answer, if it is forthcoming, may come as quite a shock. Girls, invariably choose ‘girly’ subjects such as French and English at co-ed schools and boys are more likely choose ‘male’ subjects such as Maths and the sciences. The heads of single sex schools, particularly of girls’ schools, are delighted to be asked the question, of course. You can guess why!