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!


  1. Too much generalisation and illusiory bell curving going on. These things just aren’t quantifiable except to central planners.

    It’s time to accept that every individual has different requirements regardless as to wether these are gender specific or not. The state treats children as a homogeneous mass and the only obvious difference it perceives is gender and poor/rich back grounds.

    At the heart of the state is some sanctimonious belief that people are like units which can be engineered like a batch of chemicals or bits of wood. Educationalists and statisticians then try and fit the curve. When it doesn’t fit they kick out the anomalies to try and make it work and then try to split up the demographic into regular shaped chunks and then fit the curve.

    Mass training produces what it produces. It’s the law of diminishing returns writ large. Trying to assess it meaningfully is as impossible task as trying to run a market place without price discovery and profit and loss accounts. The entire concept of mass education improvement is fatally flawed. It can be tinkered with but that’s all.

  2. Nockian, From the perspective of the individual pupil or a small cohort you are probably right, but taken over a large enough sample the statistics play out and the commentator may well be right, and it is the whole population that he is talking about.
    I went to a large number of very different schools, 6 for primary (all co-ed), two grammar schools (1 co-ed) and 3 schools for A-level (2 co-ed), and frankly, the things that Chris McGovern is talking about were evident if I reflect back to the 50s and 60s when I was at school, particularly in the 11-16 age group, yes, the girls did shoot up in the main physically faster than the boys, but the biggest boy was always bigger than the biggest girl and vice versa, and the girls who always did their homework and therefore seemed comparatively bright often disappointed in exams. In those days boys did woodwork and metalwork and girls did cookery and dressmaking and these segregated subjects carried their own hierachies that contributed to levelling the playing field.
    That brings me to segregated schools, where the playing field counted for more than it should, and if being on a rugby pitch is bloody awful if you lack a sporting gene, then being in a boxing ring with a brute is far worse.
    One of the great advantages of an unsegregated system is that it rubs the noses of members of certain medieval middle-eastern religious sects in western standards and behaviour. ’nuff said?

    • According me the very best solution would be an unsegregated school with separated classrooms. Boys and girls can meet during recreation and right outside the school. Also, today there are plenty occasions of socialization between boys and girls outside schools, so it’s not a real problem. When schools were engineered for men, women earned just only 26% of degrees, now that schools are engineered for women, men earned just only 33% of degree and the gap is still widening. Both solutions are wrong, and a real neutral education is not only very difficult to have but also, at that point, it would be hurting for girls’ educational achievement. Both genders deserve the very best for them, if we want be really competitive, and that’s why we need separated education, from 6 to 18 – then universities, that are for adults, will be of course unsegregated.

  3. Single-sex education is the only viable way to deal with the massive educational gender gap.
    It’s not nice the thought to have single-sex education, with classrooms and entire schools composed by just only girls and just only boys, but we need to face reality: women earn 66% of total degrees, men just only 33%. That’s not equality, and the outcome cannot be an healthy society. I’m bitter when I write that: I really enjoyed a college with 85% females, and a faculty with 70% of females. But, as said, reality must be checked: today girls are considered the gold standard within schools, and boys are considered faulted, and that must be fixed, without to hurt girls, of course: separated education is the only reasonable solution.

  4. It is strange that someone who claims to be a standard bearer for academic rigour should write a polemic that appears to be 100% anecdotal but with no reference to academic research. Still, the reference to “girly” subjects might provide a clue to his view of the world – as to the fact he appears to be the Daily Mail’s first port of call for a comment about schools except, of course, when they post a tear jerking article about young Wayne being excluded from school just for having pink hair….
    What Mr McG and his supporters appear to forget is that the introduction of GCSE & the National Curriculum was the tail end of a programme of reform that began in the late 50s. These changes were not unflawed but they all sprang from the realisation that the UK’s economic competitive edge was being eaten away by an education system that was not fit for purpose – remember that the very high number of illiterate men uncovered by the army during the period of WW2 conscription caused considerable dismay.
    By all means criticise our current system but don’t kid yourself that there was some sort of golden age 1945-65 – the evidence just isn’t there

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